By Rachel Tiplady It's 8 o'clock on a warm Saturday evening on the outskirts of Paris, and more than 60,000 music fans are packed into a concert stadium three times the size of Madison Square Garden, waiting for chart-topping California rockers the Offspring to play. But hang on a minute -- is that a billboard for France's left-wing newspaper L'Humanit?? And why is there so much red everywhere? Could this be a...Communist festival?
Welcome to the annual F?te de L'Humanit?. The three-day event, organized by France's Communist Party and the national daily L'Humanit?, mixes music, arts, and political debate. But this is no gathering of eightysomething babushkas muttering about Stalin.
BOPPIN' WITH THE BOLSHEVIKS. The Fête de l'Huma, as the 70-year-old event is popularly known, draws 600,000 people to a temporary village of 200 acres each year in early September. That adds up to almost 20 times more people than take part in the Nevada alternative arts festival Burning Man, or about half the number of who traditionally jam New Orleans at Mardi Gras.
What first strikes you about this festival, where the streets have names like Avenue de la Générosité and Avenue du Progrès Social, is the sheer variety of people. Among the obligatory groups of dreadlocked teenagers, you find families of all creeds and colors, smartly dressed older couples, and even business executives.
American Michael Finocchiaro, a consultant for Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) who has lived in Paris for nine years, has come with compatriot Viki Maubrey, who works at high-tech engineering company Dassault Systèmes. Both belong to France's biggest workers' union, the Confédération Générale du Travail.
SERIOUS ISSUES. "There are still some old-school Communists around looking for a revolution, but mostly the people here are left wing and out to meet others with progressive views," says Maubrey.
Only in France could they mix frivolity with serious political debate. You'll see a roller coaster whipping above a crowd munching cotton candy -- in proximity to 100 roundtable seminars raging inside packed tents. From midday to sundown over the fest's three days, company reps and union delegates hash out hot-potato issues like outsourcing and job cuts.
Finocchiaro knows something about that subject. Earlier this month, news broke that HP plans to slash 6,000 jobs in Britain, France, and Germany. "I don't know yet if I'm down to go," he says.
COMING TOGETHER. While Finocchiaro waits in limbo, others have gotten good news about their futures, thanks in part to the Fête de l'Huma. This August, 427 workers at Nestle's (NSRGY) Marseilles plant succeeded in keeping their jobs thanks to financial and lobbying support from the event's organizers. The company had planned to close the factory -- until new data demonstrated that the unit was actually profitable.
Bringing France's left-wing parties together also represented a key theme of this year's event. Since the shattering defeat of the Democrats in the 2002 national elections, the Left has divided itself into a handful of polarized groups. One much-mooted solution: a coalition of the Greens, the Communists (who still hold around 5% of the national vote), and the Parti Socialiste, the Democrats of France.
"Last year, we kicked off the call to vote non for the European Constitution," says festival director Max Staat. "Thanks to the solidarity of the French Left, we helped turn the tide."
HARMONIC CONVERGENCE. Keen not just to navel-gaze, the festival also includes the International Village, which represents more than 60 countries. Operated by a troupe of white performers, 10-foot-tall papier-mâché puppets of black Africans danced down the Avenue de L'Antiracisme. At the village's inauguration on Sept. 10, the area was dedicated to victims of Hurricane Katrina, as were the concerts.
Music stood out as one of the biggest crowd-pleasers this year. Staat, who has served as the festival's director for six years, has worked hard to book increasingly renowned international acts. This year, the Offspring, together with British bands Asian Dub Foundation and Archive, helped push festival numbers up from 500,000 the previous year, to more than 600,000. Staat hopes to book lineups to rival those of the 1970s, when Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, and the Who all trod the main stage.
He has the cash to persuade them. With a record number of festival-goers, French daily L'Humanité and the Communist Party take in north of $11 million on the $18.50 entry ticket alone, plus commission paid by the 450 tents selling books, art, and -- most important -- food.
GIANT ODDITY. Because, festival or not, this is France, and the natives take eating as seriously as politics. On Avenue de la Solidarité, tents representing the various regions of France serve Alsatian choucroute, oysters from Arcachon, and juicy steaks. By 9 p.m., the rows of wooden tables in the Gascony tent are packed.
Among them sits Finocchiaro, who leans back from his plate of magret de canard and chuckles. "It would blow most Americans' minds to know this exists," he says. "If this were in the U.S., it would be sponsored by Verizon (VZ)."
Tiplady is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Paris bureau