Another Bastille Day has come and gone. At one level, this quintessentially French celebration is perfectly straightforward: it is the occasion to reaffirm the revolutionary values – liberty, equality, fraternity – that underpin the deep satisfaction French people take in being French.
And yet, for the inquisitive expat, it can also be a hard affair on which to get a conceptual grip. A guest's good manners make you want to treat it with respect, but it is not always clear how much the French themselves are bothered. Somehow, it has a way of going off at half-cock.
For a few people – the sort who in Britain would be ordering up bunting – Bastille Day is a cue for national swagger that cannot come along too often. At the other end of the apathy spectrum, it is nothing much – another day with stuff going on of which one feels no big need to be part, especially in this heat. 'These days, it doesn't amount to anything,' says an elderly Parisian friend, though this may be more of a comment on a lethargic South's disinclination to match the capital's flamboyance.
Many, perhaps the majority, treat it as a day off work in a public calendar already lavishly provided with them, plus the bonus of a municipal fireworks hoolie at night. The fun stuff was all the better this year for the 14th falling on a Thursday, and thereby facilitating a crafty pont, the fine French art of extending a midweek day off all the way to the weekend. By the Wednesday evening, people were streaming out of town, headed for countryside and beach.
The first year I lived in France, I hastened to the parade ground at Montpellier's Peyroux gardens to make sure I got a good vantage point for the presentation of colours, the local equivalent of the grand military trundle down the Champs Elysée that is the centrepiece of the national celebrations in Paris. I needn't have troubled. A sparse audience consisted mainly of heat-struck pensioners and fractious children, called sporadically to order by hollow-eyed parents contemplating the weeks of school holiday still to be filled. Beneath a pitiless sun, the various small companies in their dress uniforms – veterans, reservists, cops, firefighters – took their turns at the syncopated trudging up and down with flags that means so much to the military-minded and rather less to anyone else. Raggedy bugle bands took turns to inflict bodily harm on The Marseillaise
This year, like so much else, Bastille Day was shaped in part by the aftermath of pandemic. Events in the past two years had mostly been cancelled. I can't honestly recall hearing many people bemoan that, but there was an extra resourcefulness in the Republic's mairies to make a bigger bang in 2022.
In Montpellier, a new socialist-led city council had separated off the more solemn ceremonial to the preceding day, spicing it with a son-et-lumière evocation of the revolution for children (timed, not untypically, to run from 10 to 11pm: French children do not get shooed off to bed early). The 14th itself featured a free concert by the city's superb symphony orchestra before the modernistic city hall, followed at 11pm in a park across the River Lez by the obligatory fireworks extravaganza.
The massive civic courtyard was crowded to capacity for the concert, and the orchestra played magnificently. Sadly, for the music lovers among us, audibility was compromised as so often at free events in France by those who treat any public gathering as an opportunity to watch YouTube on their phones and gas volubly to chums. Occasionally they would hoist the phone into someone's sightline to record a random snatch of concert for later inspection. There is a generation for whom all music is muzak, and nothing is real until it has played on their sweaty little screens.
Walking home after the concert, we could see and hear not just the Montpellier fireworks show, but an array of not much smaller ones staged by the suburban communes surrounding the city. The events columns in the local press showed councils vying furiously with one another to make this year's fête nationale memorable for their communities, and to blast the biggest ever proportion of their budget into the night sky. Only the danger of summer bushfires counselled restraint.
You can always gather a crowd in France with fireworks. But for those who have seen enough displays to last a lifetime, the telly will do just fine. The showpiece performance at the Eiffel Tower was carried live and in full on all the main news channels, and as always it looked stupendous – the more so as Paris is practising to show off to the world when it hosts the 2024 Olympics. Not even Sydney Harbour can surpass the Champ de Mars as a pyrotechnic setting.
There was coverage too for the grand parade in the Champs Elysée, but it was somewhat more selective. For one thing, the big flag on the Arc de Triomphe, the gleaming battalions, the tanks and howitzers, the ill-at-ease President in his open car, and the jets squirting the tricolour out of their tailpipes don't vary much from year to year. As always, the biggest cheer was for the firefighters. The other big stars, and major innovation, this year was a detachment of the troops serving in Ukraine. That war remains a live emotive commitment all across France.
Which is interesting, because the parade itself has drawn steady criticism in recent years, especially from the young. Many find all this martial willy-waving to be more Soviet than Napoleonic, out of keeping with a modern, secular, Eurocentric France, and generally in poor taste. But the Ukraine war is recasting French opinion on international military engagement, on defence spending and on the geopolitical potential of the EU: a shift that very much accords with Emmanuel Macron's own agenda. The emphasis on Ukraine in this year's parade was shrewdly calculated.
With his prospects mired in parliamentary turmoil, Macron followed up the parade with an expansive television interview in the garden of the Élysée Palace, an event that drew more attention than the parade itself. Ukraine again loomed large: a focused programme to diversify away from Russian gas (on which France is much less dependent than Germany), a plea for 'sobriety' in energy use, and a promise to support the defence of Kyiv. Defying his lack of a majority in the Assemblée Nationale, he undertook to press ahead with his contentious plans for labour market and pension reforms. Not exactly a non-political or a consensual prospectus for this day of national unity.
But then, national unity is
political, especially in a nation like France – or Britain – where some people feel oppressed by the union. Patriotic strut, in the age of Orbán and Trump and Putin and Brexit, is
political. Bastille Day is political. That's the point of it: to burnish anew the principles on which modern France was founded and to which the Fifth Republic aspires to hold true… whatever precisely you may perceive them to be, and regardless of whether you bother to get out of bed.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster