Crowds strolling through Paris on the first day of 2000 did of course visit the Eiffel Tower, site of Friday night's spectacular millennium fireworks, and the Champs-Elysees, where the 11 giant turning wheels had welcomed the New Year.

A less-expected but also popular stop was the Alma Bridge, where crowds gathered to gaze at a giant male statue built against a pillar of the bridge over the Seine River.

"Look, the water is over his knees!" exclaimed septuagenarian Pierrette Lafoucriere to her husband Andre. "I've never seen it that high!"

The Seine is at near-record levels. Though the river is not expected to overflow its walled banks--that hasn't happened since 1910--the high water was yet another reminder to the French that calendars and computers aren't all that count in the year 2000.

"It shows we are small compared to nature," said Pierrette Lafoucriere. "Nature is in charge. We hope 2000 will be calmer than the last few weeks have been."

The Eiffel Tower's rocket-style fireworks garnered high praise on the world-sweeping television coverage of sequential festivities Friday night and this morning. But all in all, the forces of nature have made this a New Year's the French would probably rather forget.

In the last week, two powerful windstorms have wrought havoc across the country, killing 86 people, uprooting more than 100,000 trees, damaging homes and wiping out power and communications.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of gallons of spilled fuel oil from a shipwrecked tanker have blackened France's Atlantic coast. The gummy, sticky oil has killed more than 6,000 sea birds and is still washing ashore; today another patch landed on the beaches of La Rochelle in the west.

Some leaders of other nations issued inspiring messages on the big night. France's two leaders uttered reassurances.

"In these difficult hours, we profoundly sense the fragility of things, the precarious nature of that which we took for granted," President Jacques Chirac said on national television. "We see how all can be called into question as a result of man's carelessness or the force of the elements."

"This symbolic date should be, and despite all will be, a festive occasion," Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said as he visited an emergency operations center Friday morning. "But the hours and the days to follow will also be moments of risk, after the grave events that France has known these last two weeks."

The celebrations haven't gone that well, either. The countdown clock atop the Eiffel Tower, which had ticked away the days for nearly three years, went dark Friday 5 hours and 15 minutes before the year changed, and did not re-start until the wee hours of this morning.

The holiday season in Paris has been jinxed from the beginning. Merchants along the Champs-Elysees had the idea of wrapping the trees along the famous avenue in diaphanous, veil-like cloths, with red ribbons around the trunks and colored lighting inside. But the wraps had to be removed after a few weeks because Paris pollution rendered them a dingy gray.

The riverboats that had sold New Year's Eve cruises for big bucks months in advance were left high and wet last night as the Seine rose so high the wharfs along the banks flooded entirely and the boats were all but unreachable.

"First we were going to cruise the river. Then as the water got higher we thought we could serve dinner tied to the quay. Then yesterday we had to cancel entirely," said Martine Marchand, sales director for Bateaux Vedettes. Nearly 300 people had reserved months ahead for dinner at a price of $915 per person; that money will have to be refunded even though all the food had been ordered, she said.

Rolande Bonnet and her husband, Henri, drove into Paris today from Rambouillet, about an hour from here, to see the giant wheels on the Champs-Elysees. The night before, the New Year's dinner they had planned to attend had to be transferred to a friend's house because the original host was still without electricity.

"We talked a lot about the computer bug, but nature was stronger," said Rolande Bonnet. "Last week was really a catastrophe."

And their trip was for naught. The 20-foot-high Ferris-type wheels were dark and still today, and some were in the process of being dismantled. New Year's in Paris is over.