PARIS -- With the French tricolor flying at full-staff as if to signal the republic's official indifference to the occasion, about 5,000 true-blue royalists gathered in the Place de la Concorde yesterday morning to commemorate the exact moment 200 years ago when King Louis XVI was beheaded.
In fact, the government was far from indifferent. Having organized sumptuous celebrations on July 14, 1989, to mark the bicentennial of the storming of the Bastille, it tried at first to ban a meeting that could only remind people of the Reign of Terror into which the revolution evolved.
With heavily armed riot police in evidence, a small band of ardent republicans organized a counterdemonstration on the other side the square, singing the Marseillaise and displaying a pig's head decorated with a paper crown.
In the end, France's small royalist movement won the day. With Cherubini's "Requiem for Louis XVI" blasting from loudspeakers, men and women carrying white flowers and banners with the royal fleur-de-lis crowded around the spot where the guillotine was positioned before dawn Jan. 21, 1793.
The crucial moment -- 10:22 a.m. -- was marked by one minute's silence. Then, after a reading of the king's final testament -- in which he forgave those who had condemned him -- as well as prayers, hundreds of people left bunches of lilies, tulips and carnations in homage.
"Remember, this is the history of all French," said Anne Le Bourrellec, 45, a monarchist. "It is the memory of all French that has been awakened. But I confess I never expected such a response."
Yesterday and through the weekend, memorial Masses have been organized around France. And, though the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, said the Cathedral of Notre-Dame could not be used for "partisan purposes," Masses are being held in many other cathedrals.
Perhaps the greatest victory for the royalists is that in a country where schoolchildren are still taught that Louis XVI personified an oppressive regime swept away by the glorious revolution, the anniversary has set off a nationwide debate over whether the king should have been executed.
Perhaps the most unusual reminder that Louis was not all bad came when U.S. Ambassador Walter J. P. Curley laid a wreath in the Place de la Concorde to the enthusiastic applause of the crowd.
"I was there because Louis was very instrumental in our independence," Mr. Curley said later. Many of those who showed up yesterday -- some simply sent flowers addressed to "Louis XVI, Place de la Concorde" -- nonetheless had more than the past in mind. "More and more I think that the monarchy is the answer for France," an elderly woman said as she prepared to leave a wreath of white lilies. "I believe that because I love my country."
Notably absent yesterday were members of the Bourbon and Orleans branches of France's royal family, which support rival pretenders to the throne.