Between 1792 and 1799, the astronomers Jean-Baptiste Delambre and Pierre Mchain, under orders from the Constituent Assembly created after the French Revolution, painstakingly measured the exact distance along a meridian between the port city of Dunkerque in northern France and the town of Prats-de-Mollo on the Spanish border in the south.
Their appraisal led to the establishment of the metric system, with the length of a meter defined as one 10-millionth of the distance between the two points. It is along this line, which runs through 337 towns and villages and is currently being planted with more than 10,000 trees, that some 4 million to 5 million French citizens are expected to participate today in l'incroyable pique-nique - the incredible picnic.
The event celebrating Bastille Day, France's version of the Fourth of July, is intended to bring together the people and farm products that make up this centralized yet highly diverse nation of 60 million citizens.
Because the meridian line chosen runs mainly through small villages, the picnic is also a celebration of the eternal, rural France of the peasant that remains so much a part of the collective imagination. "The cultural reality expresses itself at the village level," says the geographer Jean-Robert Pitte. "From this point of view, France has not evolved much from the time of the Ancient Regime [ruling over subjects with an iron fist], with the heritage of the church parishes still strong." While there will not be one long picnic table down the meridian, a traditional red-and-white checkered tablecloth more than 400 miles long was fabricated for the occasion.
Small towns received about a mile of the cloth, with Paris getting 8 miles that will cover a single table running from Montmartre in the north to Gentilly in the south. Tables will also be set up in the gardens of the Royal Palace, where a performance of Molire's "The Forced Marriage" in the nearby Comdie Franaise will be broadcast on a huge screen.
The Luxembourg Gardens, where the French Senate is located, will host a picnic for 12,500 mayors from across the country, a reminder of the banquets that were so much a part of French political life during the 19th century.
The organizers left it up to each village and town to prepare its picnic in order to emphasize the culinary, cultural, and historical diversity of each locale.
In many places the picnic will be accompanied by a variety of games and outdoor activities specific to each village or region. Tours of historical monuments and local museums are also planned.
One of the few general events is a 24-hour race on foot, bicycle, and motorcycle along the 800 miles of the meridian.
"The picnic evokes memories of our childhood, of our carefree days," says Gad Weil, coordinator of the picnic.
Participants have been asked to bring their own food as well as something to share with others. Special markets will be open in many villages, selling gastronomic delights.
There will be no hamburgers or hot dogs. But residents of the Paris region will savor hams, pork sausages, terrine de canard, and the Brie de Meaux, a popular cheese made from cow's milk introduced by Charlemagne.
Farther south, in the Cher region of central France, cheese from goat's milk and the famous Sancerre white wines will be featured.
The yellow and green apples will be on tables in the Limousin region, while residents of the Aveyron area near Montpellier will delight in the Roquefort cheese dear to the heart and stomach of Jose Bove, the militant farmer who has become a hero to many Frenchmen for his campaign against industrial agriculture symbolized by fast-food chains.
While most people will simply enjoy a relaxing day, historians and sociologists see the "incredible picnic" as another example of the importance of food and the land in the construction of the French character and political system.
The banquet, says historian Olivier Ihl, has traditionally served as the means of bringing together people of all ages and classes, thereby creating a collective identity, a secular religion.
"We are going to celebrate the idea of a political fraternity, the idea of a territory, the universal ideals of the French Revolution," Mr. Ihl says.
This idea of togetherness is particularly pertinent, Ihl argues, at a time when the notion of nationalism is changing in light of globalization and the creation of a united Europe.
"Everyone can be found at these picnic tables, the Frenchman, the foreigner, the old and young, men and women," says Ihl. "Sharing a table is a way of bringing individuals together."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society