Should France End its Bastille Day Military Parade?

Eva Joly, whom the French Greens recently nominated as their presidential candidate, really knows how to celebrate a national holiday. Last Thursday, on Bastille Day, the Franco-Norwegian politician suggested that France scrap the annual military parade held on the Champs-Elysées. The July 14 parade is, to be honest, the only military parade I’ve ever seen. It usually begins with the roar of Mirages fighter planes (or whatever the French fly these days) soaring in formation over the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde, where the President sits at a review stand, accompanied by a few more or less unsavory world leaders, whose presence is intended to remind the French of their once mighty empire and continued global influence. For a solid hour or so, tanks, missile launchers, and lots of men (and some women) in uniform make their way down the tree-lined avenue.

The Festival of the Supreme Being

Joly finds this all rather silly and old-fashioned. In her Bastille Day remarks, the Green candidate explained that she would like to see the event replaced by a “citizens’ parade,” in which schoolchildren, students, and senior citizens would march together “in happiness, celebrating the values that unite us.” (While I heartily agree with Joly’s sentiments, I can’t be quite as enthusiastic as she is, since I tend to come across students a lot more frequently than I do tanks). For those familiar with French history, Joly’s idea is vaguely reminiscent of the Cult of the Supreme Being, when, in the middle of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre organized a civic festival featuring columns of children, mothers, and fathers—representing life’s different stages—parading down the Champ de Mars. Unlike her Jacobin predecessors, however, Joly’s outlook is distinctly pacifist. In an aside Joly reportedly scoffed that the Bastille Day parade reminded her of North Korea, not a modern European nation.

For right-wing politicians, a half-Norwegian environmentalist bad-mouthing French traditions on the national holiday was low-hanging fruit. Prime Minister François Fillon (a member of President Sarkozy’s right-of-center party, the UMP) obliged. Speaking from Côte d’Ivoire, Fillon remarked: “I think the lady does not have a very deep knowledge”—une culture très ancienne—“of French traditions, French values, and French history.” Reminding the fifty-seven year old Fillon that she has lived in France for fifty years, Joly shot back: “It is not because I raised what I consider to be a real issue that I should be discredited and told that I am not French enough.”

In itself, the incident is little more than a mid-summer, slow-news-cycle skirmish. But Joly did successfully tap into a concern that preoccupies many French people these days: the meaning of national identity. The current government opened this can of worms when Eric Besson—a former socialist who between 2009 and 2010 was Sarkozy’s Minister of Immigration, Integration, and National Identity—launched a nation-wide discussion on French national identity. At the time, Besson explained: “I think for example that it would be a good idea—in the United States, it’s obvious, in France, it’s often complicated—that all French youths have a chance at least once in the year to sing the Marseillaise.” The subtext of this debate was self-evidently the status of immigrants, particularly Muslims, an issue that President Sarkozy has often exploited with considerable success. Marine Le Pen, who leads the National Front, the party that reinvented the issue some thirty years ago, recently took on the principle of dual nationality. Nationality, she contends, is an issue that you can’t hedge: you’re either French or something else, but you can’t have two nationalities at once. The debate over the burqa and its implications for laïcité (French secularism) has also brought the question of national identity to the fore. And deep-seated anxieties about European integration and globalization have led many, on the left as much as the right, to wonder if the nation offers the only road to salvation in an increasingly dangerous and confusing world.

I find the National Front’s politics to be abhorrent. But I do agree with Marine Le Pen when she says that the real fault line in French politics is no longer between the left and right, but between proponents and opponents of globalization, and thus between those who think the nation is disappearing and those who maintain that it must be defended. She leaves little doubt as to her own view: “My goal is to rally around my candidacy all those who are conscious of the fact that the disappearance of the nation will be dramatic for the nation and that globalism [mondialisme] is bringing us to chaos.”

How various politicians reacted to Joly’s remarks reveals the extent to which French politics is increasingly organized around these issues. Joly’s own position is that of an “alter-globalist.” While opposing neoliberal globalization, she nonetheless believes that (as the anti-globalization crowd puts it) “another world is possible.” The nation, she believes, is passé, but she wants it replaced not by the global marketplace, but by new forms of solidarity based on our shared environmental condition. A few quarters of the old far left agree. For instance, Nathalie Arthaud, the presidential nominee of the Trotskyist organization Lutte ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle, or LO), sympathized with Joly’s position, asserting: “there are new Bastilles to be stormed, like banks and oil companies”—i.e., the very conduits of “bad” globalization.

I was not able to come up with anyone on the right or the center who went so far as to side with the Green candidate. Yet François Bayrou’s Mouvement démocrate (Democratic Movement, or MoDem) was considerably tamer in its criticism than other right-wing parties. The MoDem politician Olivier Henno claimed that Joly’s real mistake was to have attacked the “wrong symbol.” July 14, he explained, commemorates not only the storming of the Bastille in 1789, but also the Festival of Federation, which occurred exactly one year later, when King Louis XVI swore before the nation that he would uphold the rule of law. The implicit premise of Henno’s remark is that France has become a kind of “post-national nation.” It has set aside the militaristic, ethnic nationalism of the early twentieth century, imbibed the lessons of democracy, and learned how to play well with others—particularly with the framework of the European Union, which the MoDem heartily supports. Never mind the tanks and Mirages. The défilé is really a democracy parade.

Against these post-national or internationalist perspectives, one finds both left-wing and right-wing apologies of the national ideal. For Marine Le Pen, the July 14 parade really is about the military—and not just democracy. “Madame Joly understands absolutely nothing about the extremely deep bond that exists between the French people and its army,” says the daughter of France’s most notorious paratrooper. Moreover,  the Franco-Norwegian misunderstands the French tradition of assimilation: “The fact that [Joly] advertizes her errors of syntax is staggering … Madame Joly voluntarily contests national identity, the necessary unity of our country, the importance of language, the importance of traditions.”

Other defenses of the national idea are made in a distinctly leftist register. Consider Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the socialist dissident and candidate of the Parti de Gauche (PG), who has also been endorsed by the French Communist Party (PCF). The Bastille Day parade must be defended, Mélenchon argues, because it represents French willingness to defend its republican model against the onslaught of international capitalism: “July 14 is above all the anniversary of the great revolution of 1789. The military parade reminds foreign powers what it will cost them to take on France and its Republic.” He adds that a citizens’ parade could supplement the military procession, demonstrating to the “oligarchy of international finance that France’s most powerful deterrent is its people.”

Tellingly, the politicians who have had the roughest time with this issue belong to the Socialist Party (PS). As socialists, they want to be internationalists and anti-militarists; as republicans, they gravitate to the left nationalism embraced by Mélenchon. Most socialist politicians avoided the question by simply denouncing Fillon, accusing him of xenophobia.

Joly’s remarks provide a foretaste of what is likely to be a crucial issue in the 2012 campaign. In light of the passions that the question of national identity arouses, it is interesting to consider how many French politicians have some claim to being mixed or dual nationals. Eva Joly and Daniel Cohn-Bendit are Franco-Norwegian and Franco-German respectively (de facto if not de jure, in Cohn-Bendit’s case). François Fillon is married to a Welsh woman named Penelope. Manuel Valls, a contender for the socialist nomination, was Spanish until he was twenty. Most glaringly, President Nicolas Sarkozy is the son of a Hungarian father named nagybócsai Sárközy Pál Istvan Ernő and a mother named Andrée Mallah, who stems from a family of Salonika Jews. The president’s wife was born Italian. And this is leaving aside politicians who are immigrants or the children of immigrants (like Rachida Dati or Fadela Amara), or tied to the French colonial experience (such as Rama Yade or Arnaud Montebourg). Perhaps Eva Joly does lack “une culture très ancienne” of French traditions. If so, she’s in good company.



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