PARIS -- The song says April, but like most romantic ballads, the song lies. It is August in Paris that is a marvel to behold and experience. The combative French declare a month-long truce in their intrigues and abandon the capital to throngs of foreigners and a skeleton crew of Parisians trusted not to take advantage of this interlude in career and social rivalries.
In the sudden calm, events and characters lost in the shuffle in other seasons dominate the bare horizon. A stroll through the courtyard of the Louvre becomes a journey of discovery rather than a path to a museum. A president's ambition to immortality sparkles in sunstruck stone, glass and water as a magnificent restoration project takes an important turn.
The Grand Louvre project has become the center of Francois Mitterrand's Paris and in many ways the center of his presidency. A century from now, long after the political speeches and maneuvers of today are forgotten, the restoring and embellishment of the world's largest museum will be seen as a lasting contribution to France by Mitterrand.
He has worked at restoring the Louvre like an ancient Chinese emperor. The emperors began building their tombs on the day they came to the throne. Future generations would measure the emperor's greatness by the vastness and wealth of the tomb.
Mitterrand launched his project shortly after he was elected in 1981. He engaged Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei to build a glass pyramid as a new focal point of the Louvre courtyard and to reconvert a half-mile long wing of the old palace, then occupied by France's Ministry of Finance, back into museum galleries. The reconversion phase began this summer. Not accidentally, it is scheduled to finish in 1995, the last year of Mitterrand's second seven-year term.
The pyramid, finished a year ago, adds a dash of adventure to the Paris landscape in this usually somnolent season. Shortly after daybreak several times a month in this abnormally hot and dry summer, mountain climbers board the glass structure, decked in professional gear, carrying sponges and buckets of soapy water. They have been recruited from mountain trails to come to Paris to wash the structure's glass panels, which quickly become covered in city grime and streaks from the spray of Pei's fountains that dance nearby.
The Louvre has developed a ridiculous looking vacuum-cleaner robot with windshield wipers that can clean the pyramid much more cheaply than the alpinists. But the museum's administrators apparently do not have the heart to introduce such a contraption in August, the very moment of the year in which the human reclaims Paris from the mechanical and motorized.
In the swarms of tourists pouring through the Louvre courtyard and the rest of Western Europe this summer, two groups stand out. One is the Japanese, who have clearly become the New Americans of travel. Like Yanks in the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese of the 1990s are borne aloft on the strength of their currency and export earnings and touch down in Europe to shop, imbibe culture and check out the Lido.
And like the Americans of yore, today's Japanese inspire both avarice and resentment in Europe. Some luxury shops in Paris have certain hours in which they admit only Japanese group shoppers, asking mere Americans or others to come back later. "Our Japanese clients prefer to be among themselves at moments like this," one Paris shop manager said as he shooed an astounded American away from his showroom.
The resentment of the Japanese surfaces in attacks by prominent politicians on Japanese business practices. As the crowds of Japanese have grown in the streets of Europe, so has the barely concealed racism in many such attacks.
Here in France Edith Cresson, Mitterrand's European Affairs Minister, regularly accuses the Japanese of waging "economic war" against French industry. In Britain, Edwina Curry, a political associate of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher looking for an issue to win a cabinet seat, complained recently that Britain was obliged to send back a shipment of Japanese-made condoms because they did not measure up to the needs of British manhood. The Japanese, she remarked, made up for shortcomings in some areas by their concentration on business.
This is also the summer of the East Europeans among Paris tourists. Modest where the Japanese are extravagant and still arriving in small numbers, Czechs, Poles, East Germans and the others freed from having to holiday in fraternal socialist spas are rediscovering a world shut to them for a half-century.
You see small groups of East Europeans moving carefully along Paris streets, like astronauts moving about in the absence of gravity for the first time. In this August of discovery, they stare intently at their neighbors in restaurants or in crosswalks to make sure they are making the right moves. For them, Paris in August is confirmation that the long nightmare of tyranny is over.