Tuesday, July 15, 2003

An Emotional Bastille Day Parade

When I got up this morning, I wasn't sure whether I should be going into work or not. Nobody mentioned to me whether I had to take public holidays or not. I got up early for breakfast anyway and started walking to the office. I had not gone 200 yards before I realised there was really nobody at all heading for the office. I was a single person standing alone on the vast La Defence esplanade. Every office was shut.

I sat down on a bench, and got out the recently signed contract from my bag. 28 days holidays it said. Nothing at all about national holidays. I thought I would probably look stupid if I went to the office, so I just went back to the apartment, got changed, and washed some dirty laundry. At 9.30 am, I decided I would go and see the parade on the Champs Elysee. I left the apartment and took the Metro to Charles de Gaulle-Etoile station, where the Arc de Triomphe is. Lots of people milled out of the single exit that was open. The area around the Arc de Triomphe was closed. Soldiers blocked all the access roads, and so the crowd was surging round onto the east side, filing down side streets until they could join the Champs Elysee.

Along the Champs Elysee there was a crowd standing four or five deep. Children perched on window ledges above the crowd and some people had brought step-ladders on which to stand. The marching cohorts were already in position. A general stood at attention in his jeep. I walked along the Champs Elysee, trying to get a view of the front of the march. At one point I had to turn down a side-street and there, in front of me, was a line of tanks stretching into the distance. People were posing in front of them. I walked along past them, their unsmiling crews ready to depart. There was no way to get down the road, so I began to walk back. Then, just as I slipped under a barrier and crossed the road, a squadron of jets trailing red, white and blue vapour trails roared overhead. Where I stood, I could see them coming up a side street and passing straight over my head at low level.

"Regarde, regarde" shouted several voices. I suddenly felt tears welling. I was thinking of Iraq and of Afghanistan. The night after night of bombing I had watched on the television. How terrifying it must feel to see these jets with their huge bombs bearing down on your city, and on you. As flight after flight roared overhead, my cheeks became wetter and wetter. I continued to walk down the Champs Elysee. The marching had started now, in time to music broadcast from loud speakers. A blind man stood with his child on his shoulders. The child was telling his father all that he could see. The tears welled again.

On the corner of one little park, the ground was dusty, and spirals rose into the sunlight. There were bursts of applause and cheering, notably for the Sapeurs Pompiers de Paris (the firemen) who marched with shining silver helmets and glinting ceremonial axes over their shoulders (but most with machine guns).

When the infantry and the navy had passed, there was a pause before the gentle rumble of armed personnel carriers and then the more general roar of tanks. Each tank carried the name of a battle: La Moskowa 1812, Bruxelles 1693, Treves, Asti 1705, Austerlitz, Djebel Zaghonave, Lai Sinh...

Then the loudest roar of all, the heavy guns, their huge barrels protruding phalically and a troop of armoured earth movers. And then other vehicles for which it was difficult to see an application, some with large rubber water containers bouncing on the back. A girl who had been standing in the heat and bright sunlight collapsed in front of me and her father carried her to the shadows. I went to offer them my water but the mother had some already and she gave it to the child.

I returned to watching the passing display. An older man next to me kept muttering "Incroyable, incroyable" (incredible, incredible), and as the last of the vehicles passed under a flight of helicopters, the man next to me began crying and left the crowd with his family who all started crying as well, apparently in sympathy for him. Here was a memory of what wars do.

As I walked away, from the Champs Elysee, I saw I was standing by the statue of Charles de Gaulle in a marching pose. He was cordoned off by a ring of dozens of police and plain clothes policemen. Even made of bronze, such men need protection. But it is not the man, it is the idea that needs protecting. The nationhood. The defense of a nation. The ability to defend onseself. It is very clear here. The people see it. They see the need for military parades. They enjoy them.

The last to pass were the cavalry. A cohort of men with no useful purpose in modern warfare. Just a symbol of past glory. A nostalgic reminder.

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