The Place de la Comedie, in central Montpellier, is the perfect place to spend a spring afternoon. It has ornate Renaissance architecture to marvel at, sunshaded cafes to be seen at, street musicians to be serenaded by and Roman-style monuments to pose under for those perfect holiday snaps.
Yet what I found in France's eighth biggest city was not tranquillity but activity. People hadn't come to hang out but to speak out against Jean-Marie Le Pen's shock success in last Sunday's first round of the presidential elections.
With the department of L'Herault, of which Montpellier is the focal point, registering an impressive "Front National" score of nearly 30 per cent, a sense of urgency has gripped the city, with daily protests uniting all sections of society.
When I arrived on Thursday, 5,000 schoolchildren were taking the afternoon off to march against Le Pen. As I joined them on the route that leads right through the city centre's main landmarks, including Antigone, the Place de l'Europe and the Place de la Comedie, they were more than willing to talk on behalf of a France that stayed silent last week. Many, such as 16-year-old Ahmed, realised that it was time for action. "We're against a guy like Le Pen who's a real fascist. We have a right to be heard."
In many ways the procession was a portrayal of everything that Le Pen fears about France today; a multicultural representation of young "hexagonaux" whose image is as diverse as anything that you will see on the streets of London. French teenagers of African, Arabic and Mediterranean descent walked along, chanting to the sound of djembe (a North African drum) and quick-fire slogans that were as much rapped as sung. There were lots of couplets punning on fascism and Nazi, but perhaps the most meaningful thing heard all afternoon was the simplest: "First. Second. Third generation. We're all immigrants."
The carnival atmosphere made me think of a mini-Womad festival without the food stalls and Portaloos. The kids were soon running through a fountain in the middle of the broad, bright walkways of Place Thessalie to refresh themselves in the afternoon heat. Then they reflected on Le Pen's success.
According to Sebastien, who is 17, apathy caused it: "There were so many opinion polls saying that Le Pen didn't have a chance, that it would be Jospin and Chirac. A lot of people thought it wasn't worth voting because of that. Plenty also voted for a lot of small parties, and that weakened the left." Who do you think actually voted for Le Pen? Mehdi, who is 16 years old, thinks that it was "old people... who else! All that the papers just talk about is crime all the time. That scares them".
Everybody has a theory about Le Pen's electorate. While some put it down to the generation gap, others think he's favoured by the unemployed. And there are even reports of Arabs voting for him. What most people at the Place de la Comedie agreed on - and by late afternoon the lyceens had been joined by war veterans and 60-year- old women who remember 1968 (and who voted for Chirac) - is that disenchantment with the political class and the media's obsession with law and order helped to create the circumstances that led to Le Pen's surprise electoral success.
One of the most interesting sights of the afternoon was Iwan, a 30-year- old carrying a placard not only denouncing Le Pen but urging people to pick up any rubbish that they might leave behind. "Le Pen has done well through disorder in society," he said. "It plays into his hands if the place isn't clean. That's all part of the image that he's exploiting. A lot of people in the villages in particular have made up their minds based on the image of a dirty, unsafe place they've seen on TV. A lot of political capital has been made from that."
Iwan advised me to take a trip to one of the small villages on the Mediterranean coast if I wanted to understand how France's political climate is changing.
Montpellier, with its young vibrant "black blanc beur" (black, white, North African) constituents, is a long way from daily life in a coastal village such as Palavas. "The National Front did very well. People have a different image of France there," explained Iwan.
With its harbour, pitch-and-putt course, neat shops and breezy cafes, Palavas is the sort of town that budget travellers from Britain travel to for a leisurely, affordable holiday. It certainly feels different to Montpellier. As I arrived by car an hour later, there were decidedly fewer young people on the streets, and the atmosphere in the seaside town was sleepily engaging.
Strolling along the main boulevard in the centre of town, I encountered mostly middle-aged couples who told me they were ashamed by the results and fed up with politics. Then I met a tall, stocky white-haired figure watching boats sailing past in the harbour. Had he been in Montpellier during the afternoon, would he not have been at the anti-NF rally? "No, not at all. I voted for Le Pen, and I'm not ashamed to say it. Things have gone too far. And people really are fed up. I mean I didn't even look at the first-round results." He wanted to remain nameless but told me that he was 55 and used to run a restaurant. Was he not worried about what Monsieur Le Pen might do if he were to come to power?
"He won't. There's no way." So did you vote for Le Pen as a form of protest against the other parties?
"Yes ... and no." What exactly do you mean by that?
"I'm fed up. I think that there's clearly a problem with immigration. I can't get benefits while immigrants can and they... I mean the maghrebins [North Africans] haven't fitted in.
"France has had always had Italian, Portuguese and Spanish immigrants, and they've been fine but the North Africans... I don't know, and then there's the Islamic question. I'm worried that we'll turn into Yugoslavia at this rate."
Economic woe. Islam post-11 September. Europe. All these are part of the wider international context within which the French elections unfolded. Several French commentators have seen this as a cause of confusion among voters who were already disenchanted with politics.
Part of Le Pen's appeal is his simplistic approach to such issues, and his "warm-hearted" embrace of the "ordinary folk", such as our retired restaurateur, has struck a chord at a time of uncertainty and change.
Yet there don't seem to be any clear-cut signs that Le Pen's racial hatred is filtering through to daily life. Just minutes after talking to Mr NF, I met Ahmed, a 27-year-old student of Algerian origin who told me that "although racism exists here as it does everywhere, I've never really felt persecuted. That's an important thing to understand".
Few people in Palavas seemed to know what the electoral results were in the town, or what Le Pen really stands for. As I strolled over the bridge past a war monument to the honour of "la patrie" erected next to one for a local doctor known as an "homme de charite", I met more people who told me that political parties in general are all "jokers".
There seemed to be a hazy, almost lackadaisical awareness of the exact implications of the past week, I thought as I waited for the bus back to Montpellier. Then the 17 bus arrived right on time, and on board there was a group of people who were a microcosm of the multicultural make-up of Montpellier. There was a white woman next to me, a couple of Mediterranean- looking lads in front of me, a mixed-race couple near the driver and Ahmed and his friend Hamid behind me. They were both from Morocco and studying agriculture.
"I like coming to Palavas just to hang out," said Ahmed. "I've never had any problems here." Were you at the demo this afternoon? "Sure. Who wasn't?"
We left town, headed past the campsites awaiting their summer visitors and made our way along a stretch of road lined with palm trees. To our left was a broad lake where I could imagine people windsurfing in the summer. We carried on through a few tiny villages complete with terraced cafes, passing roundabout after roundabout before reaching the outskirts of Montpellier.
We said our goodbyes as we reached the bus station, and I made my way back up to the Place de la Comedie to take an early-evening stroll. It was just gone half past eight, and there was still brilliant orange light in the sky.
An anti-NF banner had been stuck at the top of the square's Athena statue, and teenagers and students were still milling around. I reflected on the contrasts that I had seen throughout the day; the activity and cultural harmony in Montpellier, the apathy and racism in Palavas. It's tempting to draw a series of divides between young and old, town and country, open- minded and ignorant. France seems to be suffering a loss of unity. One middle-aged man told me France was losing its "collective consciousness".
Yet France's political climate can't be rationalised so easily. Beyond these dichotomies there is a profound malaise about the French. They are tired of the treatment meted out to them by politicians and the media. In the aftermath of the defeat of Lionel Jospin and the success of Le Pen, this is a country asking questions of itself. There is a new sense of alarm.
If Le Pen is defeated in the second round of the presidentials, and the huge mobilisation throughout the country suggests so, there will still be a lot of thinking to do about exactly what the "ordinary folk" really want and how best to give it to them.
No less than 16 candidates ran last Sunday, but still the feeling is that no one party has really got to grips with "les vrais problemes des Francais".
For all the passion that I saw in Montpellier, I can't help but feel that French politics is still in an ambiguous, discredited no man's land, hovering somewhere between the Place de la Comedie and the Place de l'Europe.…