When American tourists flock to Washington, they tour the White House, they sit in on congressional debates, they attend oral arguments at the Supreme Court sessions. Doors are open.

In France, the government is accessible too--on the third weekend of every September.

Today and Saturday were France's National Heritage Days. Some 14,000 government buildings, monuments, mansions, movie theaters and other historic sites were open for public visitation; nearly all are usually closed.

Heritage weekend, begun 15 years ago, has grown steadily in popularity in France, and the concept has spread like wildfire to the rest of Europe. Started in 1984 by then Culture Minister Jack Lang, last year the event attracted 11 million visitors, nearly a fifth of the population.

"It is normal that citizens have the right to freely visit the monuments that belong to them, to the nation, to memory, to history," Lang said.

Normal, perhaps, but not traditional. France has been an electoral democracy since 1876, but much of its government's operations are only dimly visible to the public.

The Elysee Palace, home of the president, is not open for public visits. Citizens can view debates of the National Assembly, the lower house of the legislature, only by special invitation or by reserving months in advance, although sessions are aired on television.

Government ministries in Paris are generally in old mansions, hidden behind closed gates that open only to let limousines in and out while a white-gloved policeman blocks traffic. Inside many are works of art generally hidden from public view.

Perhaps it is voyeurism, perhaps art appreciation, perhaps genuine love of country that brings the French out in droves to go inside buildings they walk by every day.

In any case, Ophelie Manpart and her four friends were not the slightest bit concerned this afternoon that they had waited 3 1/2 hours to see the Elysee and still had two hours to go. Standing in a line that stretched perhaps half a mile--those at the end would wait seven hours--a beaming Manpart clutched her plastic bag containing an apple and an umbrella.

"This is where the decisions are made," she said to explain her desire to stand so long to see the equivalent of the White House. "The interior is historic, and we paid for it. This is the only way, the only day."

With that, her friend Anne-Marie Vallee pulled out a guidebook and informed a reporter that the Elysee had been built in 1718 and was once the residence of the famous courtesan, Mme de Pompadour.

"It's a symbolic place, full of history," Vallee said.

And did they mind the fact that they could visit this symbolic place only once a year, after a five-hour wait? Not at all, the women said. After all, it was inconvenient for President Jacques Chirac to have to remove himself, and what about all the security measures? Surely that could not be done more often.

At the National Assembly, Sandrine Gaudre was more skeptical. She had stood in line for an hour and then jammed in with the rest of the crowd to see the gilded ceilings of the reception rooms and the hemicycle, the half-circle-shaped chamber where legislators meet. She wanted to know more.

"It's not enough," she said. "It's just a place. France is not becoming more transparent. We just know where our politicians work, not what they do."

The idea of the heritage days is not just to unveil government buildings, but to open to the public corners of France's culture and history that are in private hands as well. So, this weekend, visitors could see the private museum commemorating France's construction of the Suez Canal at the water company Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux. They could descend to the underground vault room of the bank Societe Generale and tour the Chaumet jewelry collection on the Place Vendome.

Hospitals, cinemas, military installations, prisons, firehouses and archives were open all over France to a record 11.5 million visitors. In the north, even steel and coal mines, now closed but once rich sources for France's industrial prowess, were open for tours. Privately owned chateaux and gardens were on display from Picardie to the Cote d'Azur.

At the National Assembly, Andreine Cerutti and her granddaughter, Geraldine Larapidite, made it a family occasion. As they walked from the legislature arm in arm, they raved about the paintings and the architecture, and laughed that although both live in Paris, neither had ever seen the place where their nation's laws are made.

"I was really curious to see it," said Larapidite. "It was beautiful. It's too bad it's only open once a year."