Designer to shun augury as Paris fails to burn as predicted


The countdown started at 11.21 a.m., the last minute before the destruction of Paris, according to the fashion designer Paco Rabanne.

On the Croix Rouge square, around the base of the Centaur statue and opposite Paco Rabanne's rue du Cherche-Midi boutique, a crowd of perhaps 1,000 chanted down from 60 to one.

At 11.22, the crowd broke into applause. A tube of MIR detergent - an allusion to the MIR space station - plummeted into a bucket at the base of the statue. The eclipse had reached Paris, and Paris survived.

Mr Rabanne, the son of Spanish republican exiles and the creator of the revolutionary chain-mail dress 33 years ago, gave France a good scare with his book, based on an incomprehensible verse by the 16th century seer Nostradamus, 1999, Fire from Heaven.

The couturier predicted that the solar eclipse would blow the MIR space station out of the sky, that its debris would strike the Chateau de Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris and the Gers department in south-west France.

He foresaw thousands of Parisians, burning like torches, throwing themselves into the Seine. The elephants of the Vincennes zoo were to have stampeded into a nearby lake. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Louvre were to have been reduced to rubble.

Paris did see unusual movement yesterday morning - not burning men and frightened elephants but people rushing to the Gare du Nord for last minute trains to the total eclipse zone.

An estimated 20 million visitors invaded 2,000 towns in northern France, including 450,000 in Reims, where the American opera singer Jessye Norman sang He's Got the Whole World in his Hands in front of the cathedral.

In Paris, where the moon covered 99 per cent of the sun, police said 15,000 people watched the cloud-obscured phenomenon from beneath the Eiffel Tower, and the same number from the Champs Elysees. Traffic stopped throughout the city as tourists, shopkeepers, waiters and residents watched from pavements, balconies and rooftops.

But the most humorous gathering was the "Survivors' Cocktail" in the Croix Rouge square, organised by the Cercle Zetetique.

"I founded the Circle in 1994 to fight human stupidity and charlatans," Paul-Eric Blanrue (33), a teacher and historian told me, standing next to a picnic table laden with sunflowers, bottles of white wine, peanuts and crisps.

"Zetetique is from the Greek verb zeten, meaning to search," he explained, as a street performer spat flames into the eclipse twilight.

Mr Blanrue's latest book calls the Turin shroud a 14th-century fraud. His group has demystified dozens of haunted houses and unmasked 200 fake clairvoyants.

But where was Paco Rabanne? The iron gate was pulled down in his shop, and a small sign noted that the boutique will re-open on August 24th - an odd commitment for a man who believed in the destruction of Paris. Nor did his intimations of doom prevent Mr Rabanne recently showing a winter 2000 collection.

"Paco Rabanne is hiding in his cellar in Britanny, watching with a periscope," Mr Blanrue said. "We demand an apology from him."

A retired French biologist named Jacques Theodor awarded the absent designer his Lemon Prize of Science. "I don't mind him generating a little publicity for himself," Mr Theodor said, "but if someone committed suicide I would never forgive him."

Mr Rabanne's prophecy may have been as cheap as his pliermade tin can dresses, but an amazing number of French people took him seriously. Admissions in emergency psychiatric wards have doubled over the past month; most were diagnosed as suffering from anguish as a result of Mr Rabanne's predictions.

Astrology is taken seriously in the country of Descartes, and a poll by the weekly L'Evenement found that 10 per cent of French people were concerned that the solar eclipse might bring side effects ranging from the end of the world to the arrival of extra-terrestrials to a stock market crash.

As the gloom of the eclipse lifted, the party-goers drifted away. "Paco in the waste bin," a man shouted as he walked past the shuttered boutique. "Caramba! No Paco-lypse," said a poster stuck on the designer's plate glass window. Mr Rabanne has promised to abstain from prophecy in future.