14 July 2008

Fête Nationale

In the evening, there will be a fireworks display at the Tour Eiffel.

In an interview with me for Opera News last year, the stage director Laurent Pelly expressed his discomfort with “Co-co-ri-co” French nationalism. The word translates as “cock-a-doodle-doo,” and refers to the rooster that was the symbol of France in years gone by. Though I understood Pelly’s feeling — I squirm when confronted with American jingoism — my own response to French patriotism is not Pelly’s. He can afford to be ambivalent, because he was born here. I’m in the boat with other immigrants whose love for France exceeds all national limits: I stand proudly beside Napoleon Bonaparte, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Frédéric Chopin, Vaslav Nijinsky, Pablo Picasso, Josephine Baker, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maria Callas, Julia Child, and Johnny Depp. We weren’t born here, we came here by choice; consequently, and each after his own fashion, we are more nuts about France than the French are.

And so I have spent this morning doing something that no French person I know would do: watching television coverage of the Bastille Day military parade down the Champs-Elysées. If I have moderated my adopted patriotism in any way, it is merely in that I didn’t brave the crowds (and the crowd control) to go down and watch the parade firsthand. Running around town this weekend with Beth Zalusky and her husband, I found that preparations for the parade were already a headache, days in advance, and the placement of the reviewing stand achieved the remarkable feat of making the Place de la Concorde even more impossible than ever to traverse. Watching from home afforded me superior views of the parade, as well as the chance to reflect calmly on the day and the nation, and what they mean to me.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité en Défilé

Like anything in this country, the Bastille Day parade is rife with contradiction. The holiday was instituted in 1880, by leftists, in the smoldering ruin of the Second Empire, yet it is marked by a saber-rattling parade in which many of the marchers wear dress uniforms that date to the reign of Napoleon III. Under that emperor (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), French military adventures were numerous but not notably successful, and the last of them, a war with Prussia, resulted in France’s defeat, Napoleon III’s exile, the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, and the Germans’ first occupation of Paris. An equivalent paradox for Americans might be a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday that featured a parade of Confederate uniforms and a handgun exhibition.

Le jour de gloire est arrivé

It’s a strange thing to watch the French military on parade. They’re hardly a negligible power, yet they cannot be said to have a penchant for victory. They look wonderfully impressive, yet they lack the theatrical élan of the English or the crushing weight of the Soviets, in their parades. It may be significant that among those who wear Second Empire uniforms are the students of the École Militaire at Saint-Cyr (which I pass on the train between Beynes and Paris). While it’s untrue that French officer training consists of a single lesson (how to say “I surrender” in German), it may be that someone is trying to keep the young soldiers’ expectations low and therefore realistic.

Meanwhile, the French warriors pass in review before a president who recently insulted them (calling them “amateurs” after a mishap at Carcassonne) and who seeks to reform them by pruning their numbers. Sitting beside him on the reviewing stand are 40 heads of state and government, including the German chancellor and the leaders of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, a résumé incarnate of bloody conflicts past, present, and future. France’s role in those present and future conflicts will be peacekeeping at best, ineffectual at worst; its real military might will have nothing to do with the case.

The world’s first military air force, updated

This didn’t dampen the festivities in any visible way, and the parade ended at noon on the dot, with a precision landing in formation of parachutists directly in front of the reviewing stand. I’m not sure what it said about strength, but it was an excellent display of discipline. The heads of the armed forces then approached the president while a band played Lully’s “March for the Ceremony of the Turks,” that speaks nicely of cross-cultural exchanges within Europe (Lully, the official composer of Louis XIV, was born Italian) and between Europe and Islam; yet it also refers to Turkey, whose admission to the European Union Sarkozy opposes, and it’s derived from a farce by Molière, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. What does it all mean? Does it mean anything?

While the new, leftist Italian wife of the right-wing President of the French Republic circulated in her très chic suit of royal purple, I reflected on the spirit of France, and why it is that I, unlike any French person I have ever met, get choked up and even on occasion cry when I hear the “Marseillaise.”

It all boils down to this. It’s a busy night in Rick’s Café Américain, and a rowdy bunch of Nazis begin singing their noxious, beer-inflected anthem, “Wacht am Rhein.” Viktor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) turns to the orchestra and requests the “Marseillaise.” Rick (Bogart, of course) nods his approval, and Laszlo begins to sing, the band and all the customers joining in. The Nazis try to drown them out, but they can’t.

Even Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau), the French beauty who’s been tempted to collaborate, begins to sing, remembering what she loves about her country and what she hates about the Nazis. Her eyes fill with tears — and so do mine.

The Nazi commander, Colonel Strasser (Conrad Veidt), tells Louis Renault, the police chief (Claude Rains), to put a stop to this musical uprising, and it’s then that Rains closes down the bar, uttering his immortal line that he is “shocked, shocked to find there is gambling going on here.”

It’s a pretty piece of propaganda, that scene, and utterly fictitious, but it speaks to a quality I’ve often seen and admired in the French: their pride in themselves. True, this pride sometimes manifests itself as arrogance, which is not their (nor anyone else’s) most attractive trait. But the French are entitled to a certain, quite high degree of pride. Their nation has been around a long time. Again and again, they’ve been masters of the known world and slaves of the Germans; they’ve been royalists, revolutionaries, reactionaries and republicans, but they have endured.

They invented chivalry, cathedrals, tennis, ballet, rational philosophy, analytic geometry, ballooning (and consequently, the first military air force), the Rights of Man, the separation of powers in government, the metric system, Braille, photography, pasteurization, the hypodermic needle, Impressionism, the combustion engine and the automobile, as well as its pneumatic tires, plus paid vacations, the Statue of Liberty, the motion picture, and most soap worth using. (They did not invent french fries or french toast, both of which are believed to be Belgian, and absolutely nobody takes credit for french dressing: all of this news is received with relief by most French people.)

And while they were at it, they created masterpieces of art and literature and the world’s most beautiful city; they cultivated the best food and wine; they discovered radium and decoded Egyptian hieroglyphics; and they have somewhat warily opened their doors to me.

That’s why I cry at the “Marseillaise,” it’s why I watch the Bastille Day parade, and it’s why I celebrate this day, every year, wherever I may be.

The beginning of a beautiful friendship.
(And not incidentally, a great excuse for a party)

No comments: