Paris — In a scene almost out of the French Revolution, hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen converged Sunday at the Place de la Bastille. Organizers of the rally in support of private schools claimed an attendance of 1 million, calling it the largest assembly ever in France.
On the surface, the demonstration had far less revolutionary significance than the 1789 storming of the Bastille prison. Its proclaimed purpose was to protest the Socialist government's already much watered-down plans to bring the Roman Catholic private schools in line with the state school system.
But the protest also had larger political overtones. Only a week ago, President Francois Mitterrand's governing Socialist-Communist coalition suffered a resounding defeat in elections for the European Parliament. In this context, many people marched with the hope that they might hasten the government's demise.
''This is the beginning of the resistance,'' charged Pierre Daniel, president of UNAPEL, the association grouping parents of private-school students. Slogans at the march included direct political messages. ''Public spending, our taxes,'' some proclaimed. ''Give us a popular referendum,'' others blared.
Members of the political opposition were out in force. They were led by Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris and leader of the center-right coalition of Gaullists. Jean-Marie le Pen, leader of the extreme right National Front, and his followers also took part.
The Catholic Church, ostensibly the beneficiary of the protest, was mildly embarrassed by the political coloring its cause has taken. There was no official church participation, but three bishops did send a message of support.
Before the march, both the church and the government seemed ready to end their argument over the schools. Two months ago, the government had proposed a compromise bill that would have extended state control over the publicly subsidized church schools, but would have not made the private-school teachers become civil servants, as originally proposed. The church made noises about accepting.
But then the troops on both sides of this long-smoldering education war stepped up the pressure. For years, Mitterrand's Socialists have fought to replace the church schools with a uniform system of public schools. When they saw that the government's reform would not end Catholic influence in education, they cried betrayal.
Under pressure, Mitterrand decided to act quickly.
He stiffened the terms of the bill, stipulating that from 1995 private schools with fewer than half their teachers in the civil service would not be granted state subsidies. Moreover, he declared the May 25 parliamentary vote on the reform a motion of confidence, hoping to push the bill through the National Assembly with limited debate and end the affair quickly.
The comfortable Socialist majority duly passed the law after a short discussion - but the tactics only increased the opposition's fury. Conservative leaders attacked the government for assaulting civil liberties in calling the quick parliamentary vote. They then proceeded to call Sunday's massive demonstration.
Mitterrand himself has made no public comment on the rally. He had just returned late Saturday from Moscow, and today he plays host at Fontainebleau to a summit of European Community leaders. His advisers say he would like to forget about the entire school issue, and instead focus his energies on the country's more pressing foreign and economic problems.
But the controversy is unlikely to fade away silently. Private-school supporters promise more demonstrations if the reform isn't overturned.
The school war does not yet represent another 1789. But if it constinues to escalate, the massing at the Bastille may soon represent more than a symbolic homage to France's 18th-century revolutionaries.