Paris probably would have hailed Hillary Rodham Clinton like a movie star today, pulling her to its Gallic bosom, toasting her on the Left Bank and Right.
Ordinary Parisians--especially women and girls--rallied to her side during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, viewing her as a strong and stoic wife, mother and leader.
"I think she's a wonderful woman!" gushed Caroline Culliere, 16, one of several high school girls who applauded enthusiastically when the first lady took to a stage at the Sorbonne to present a speech to a tiny, invitation-only crowd. "She's a good representative for the United States and the world. . . . I think she can go far and even be the president," Caroline said.
We'll never know if Clinton might have exceeded even the tumultuous reception accorded to Jackie Kennedy in 1961, however, because Mrs. Clinton's visit here as part of her husband's seven-day European tour was one of the best-kept secrets in town.
"It would have been mobbed" had the public been allowed in, said Julia Makris-Frencia, one of the Hillary fans at the Sorbonne who seemed thrilled by their heroine's appearance but frustrated in any hope of approaching her.
Mrs. Clinton never gave the poor city a chance. She did a little shoe shopping Wednesday on the Rue Saint-Louis en L'Ile--at Todd's and Apostrophe--but no one breathed a word to the press, so there were few photographers to alert the locals that a celebrity was abroad, and zero mention in today's papers.
She seemed to go out of her way to ensure a tepid response to her speech. Not one sentence in her solemn, 39-minute address at the revered university was designed for applause, and no one clapped except when she began and ended. Those two long, loud ovations, however, suggested this audience was eager to raise hosannas if she had only offered a punch line here, a little call to arms there.
The magnificent but cozy auditorium was nearly half empty, and the event received virtually no advance publicity.
Clinton shook no hands at the Sorbonne, except those of four local dignitaries-- President Jacques Chirac's wife, Bernadette, among them--who were haltingly led onstage shortly before the guest of honor turned and left. All her other events were private, including a reception the Clintons hosted at the U.S. Embassy, and the Wednesday night dinner with the Chiracs at Chez L'Ami Louis, a bistro in the Marais district.
Parisians who did make it into the first lady's speech--like Caroline and her schoolmates--are well aware that she is likely to run for the Senate from New York. They seemed almost eager to send some francs to her campaign.
"I think she could lead the country," said Valentine Kahn-Sriber, 15. Asked about l'affaire Lewinsky, she rolled her eyes and said, "The French were supportive of Hillary because of lot of people thought Bill Clinton had been hard to her. He's not a good husband."
The girls gamely followed the Sorbonne speech, even though it took 23 minutes of stentorian oratory about "globalization," the evils of Slobodan Milosevic and the wisdom of Voltaire, Rosseau and America's "forefathers and foremothers" before Clinton dispensed with the introductions and announced: "Today I want to focus on the . . . civil society."
From there, it was an additional 16 minutes of grave, somber analysis of the need for a greater world community, where good citizens can be created only by civil societies.
Afterward, Bucharest-born and Barnard-educated Eva Maze, a retiree, declared the speech a great success. "It must have been very easy for the interpreter," Maze said, "because her pace was so good."
That was a kind way of saying the first lady spoke . . . very . . . slowly . . . and . . . clearly.
CAPTION: Chelsea Clinton, next to lawyer Samuel Pisar, listens as her mother delivers a speech at the Sorbonne.