As everybody knows, 14 July is France’s national day. That much at least is clear but there’s an awful lot else that isn’t. If you have forgotten your history it was on 14th July 1789 that the Bastille prison in Paris was stormed. Given that the only prisoners it held were seven old men – four forgers, two lunatics and a single aristocrat – it was an event richer in symbolism than results. Nevertheless it is held to have started the French Revolution and has been the national day since 1880.
It’s not actually very clear what the Fête Nationale is all about. In Paris and other big cities there are splendid military parades on the 14th. Apparently France is the only Western democracy that rumbles tanks and marches columns of soldiers along its boulevards on such an occasion. It’s a reminder that here that the relationship to its military is very different to that across the Channel. One suspects that in a France which has endured three invasions in one hundred and fifty years, a public army presence is reassuring. There may be more though. The French political system has not always been the most stable and strange as it may seem, France came very close to a military coup in 1958. Is the army also something of a guarantor of law and order?
This year we experienced two separate events. For reasons beyond our comprehension (except perhaps that it allowed an awful lot of partying because no one had to go in to work the following morning) our village of Taradeau held its celebratory event on the evening of the 13th. Here something of the Republican spirit still persisted and there was a procession with a “revolutionary float” pulled by a Land Rover fire engine that they probably use for rescuing cats. The really clever trick with the Fête Nationale is that it’s in summer which means it’s warm enough for half the town to gather outside and drink the local wine. Which everybody did. Small children and a number of older women were dressed in striped skirts with mob caps; others wore a red revolutionary bonnet. Still others had red, white and blue cockades pinned to their clothes. After a lot of standing around, all the costumed children were loaded into the trailer and amid clouds of confetti and diesel smoke were slowly driven around the village. And then as night fell there were some very impressive fireworks which almost certainly the village can’t afford, but then given that the entire nation is living beyond its means in a spectacular way, who’s going to begrudge a little village several thousand euros worth of fireworks?
The Vidauban event the following evening appeared to have rejected all attempts at any linkage with the past, although there were a fair smattering of tricolor flags. The town square was jammed full of people and there was a rock band which when you listened to the noise carefully, appeared to be singing in English of some sort. Vidauban’s celebrations were a much bigger affair, as you’d expect from a larger town. There were stalls selling sweets and snacks. Many of the children were holding paper lanterns lit by real candles in a manner which reminds you that there is no real French equivalent of “Health and Safety”. Then as night fell we all drifted down towards the car park by the river, the band played, the lights went out and there were was a succession of extraordinarily powerful and frequently deafening fireworks which left you in no doubt that Vidauban packed more firepower than Taradeau.
So if there is a single coherent vision as to what 14th July is about we have yet to find it. There is a nod to the founding of the Republic, a bow to the military, a lot of red white and blue and an incredible amount of fireworks. But then maybe it’s best like that. There is something rather troubling about nations who are precisely certain who they are and what they stand for and who are utterly determined that absolutely everybody should be united in praises to the nation’s victories, the noble state or the Glorious Leader. Vive la Republique!