Outside of France it’s called Bastille Day. Here it’s just called “le quatorze juillet” – the day that France celebrates its nationhood; the republique and its values of Liberty, Egality and Fraternity. The chosen day, 14 July, recognises the date in history – in 1789 – when the infamous Bastille prison in Paris was stormed by the revolutionaries principally to obtain supplies of gunpowder and bullets for their fight. As a prison the Bastille was commonly used to hold prisoners at the whim of the ruling monarchy and as such the sacking of the Bastille and release of prisoners symbolised the destruction of absolute power of the monarchy.
Elsewhere around the world the events that triggered national days are equally interesting if a little less colourful. The Americans celebrate getting rid of the British, (signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th 1776), the Australians celebrate the arrival of the British (on 26 January 1788, they needed to replace the 13 colonies they lost in America), and in New Zealand we celebrate a treaty with the British (Treaty of Waitangi signed 6 Feb 1840). The British themselves don’t have a national day as such, although they have plenty of other great pomp and ceremony days.
In the spirit of the original event in France (arms acquisition), the main event these days is a grand military parade along the Champs Elysees. Having decided we ought to see the parade live at least once, (even though you probably get a better view watching at home on the tele) we arrived early and after passing through the security barricades took up a spot not far from Mc Donalds. It was a glorious sight; the avenue that is, not the golden arches. The majestic tree-lined perspective from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde bedecked with patriotic red white and blue tricolors, huge tanks, trucks, missile launchers, and I-don’t-know-whats lining one side of the road sporting full camouflage paint (a very fashionable palette in clothing right now) and military personnel in a great variety of dress uniforms from camouflage with coloured cravats and colourful epaulets to sweeping red and cream cloaks, some with red trousers and feathered hats, others with white knicker bockers and large floppy white hats, and many more.
Two hours standing waiting was enough to get to know our neighbours; mostly non-Parisian, but visiting French folk, foreign tourists and expats like ourselves. While we waited the army personnel put the final spit and polish on the military hardware. It was already so impeccably clean I wondered if it had ever been used. Anticipation built as the soldiers manned (and womanned) their stations for a final pre-start inspection of the troops and the hardware. Ten o’clock start time, on time, hurrah. Soon Monsieur le President drove past waving to the crowd, justifiably proud and probably pleased for a morning of popularity. He was followed by immaculately groomed horses and riders; each rider’s headdress comprised a long ponytail, red for the ones playing musical instruments and black for the rest. Next up, the spectacular fly over by jets streaming out lines of red white and blue behind them, followed by more jets and helicopters beating the air.
And then, more waiting, waiting, waiting. At that point we realised a tactical error in the selection of our viewing point. We were above the side street where the marching troops entered the avenue, so while our crowd waited getting more fidgety and impatient for action, the splendid parade including representatives of all the nations that took part in the first World War, filed down the avenue out of our sight! Damn.
Of course we weren’t the only ones waiting……the military folk manning the heavy equipment had to bide their time too and naturally even well trained military bladders have to respond to the command of biology. For their relief there were bright blue, completely non-camouflaged port-o-loos stationed at intervals along the avenue. Desperate for some relief to the boredom the crowd cheered and applauded any soldier who availed himself of the facilities. Eventually the big guns got moving; tanks rumbled and squeaked their way along the avenue, trucks carrying impressive looking missile launchers filed past and soon it was all over. By the time we had navigated through the departing crowds into the side streets we met up with the big guns returning from Place de la Concorde and parking in the street parallel with the Champs Elysees. People were taking photographs with the soldiers, some even hoisting kids up onto the tanks for a photo. How cool!
At night we watched the firework display on the Eiffel Tower – the live televised coverage this time from the comfort of our armchairs. Friends tell me that Parisians are more likely to celebrate 14 July by dancing at the traditional Firemen’s Balls held in each arrondissement in Paris and in many towns and villages around the country. Apparently fire stations, public squares and the street frontages of mayoral offices are given over to an evening of music, dancing and festivity. Sounds good, so maybe next year we’ll investigate that – and report back of course. Vive la republique!