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Robert Zaretsky: Why the French Love a Parade

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, in Texas.

...[Bastille Day] was the Age of Reason’s Woodstock — even with the presence of the National Guard, the citizen militia born in the creative chaos of 1789. Sporting their blue, white and red cockades, Guard detachments from across France came to affirm their region’s attachment to the Revolution. For the French nation in 1790, the Guard was no less the authentic representative of the popular will than, say, Jimi Hendrix (wearing red, white and blue) riffing on the Star-Spangled Banner was the authentic expression of Woodstock Nation.

While the Guard’s role in the festival partly explains the military’s presence in today’s parade, there’s another source. With the advent of Napoleonic and Restoration France, July 14 became the date whose historical significance dared not be spoken. It was the fledging Third Republic, born in the rubble of defeat left by the Franco-Prussian War, which resurrected the parade in 1880.

The French Left even more than the Right insisted on the military’s role in the festivities. Though this strikes many foreign observers as odd, the reason was quite simple: The army symbolized a nation not just revived, but (unlike its Prussian foe) also republicanized, the eager inheritor of the revolutionary nation at arms.

Fast forward another century (and two more republics) to the present day: The French, regardless of their political affiliation, remain attached to the défilé militaire. Two years ago, the Green Party candidate for the presidency, Eva Joly, suggested that the soldiers and machinery be replaced by a “citizens’ parade.” Politicians and pundits across the political spectrum immediately, vociferously, and perhaps even spontaneously protested so loudly that Joly beat a rapid and ignominious retreat....

Read entire article at NYT