The best of the rest (3)
Where? Paris and across France
When? July 14
How long? 1 day
France celebrates its national holiday (la fete nationale) with a combination of pomp and circumstance, street parties and a general letting down of hair. Declared a holiday for all French men and women only in 1880, in recent years it has lost some of its popular appeal – partly because Bastille Day falls in the middle of the very month when most French people take their sacrosanct four-week vacation by the seaside – but the party-like ambience, particularly in the capital, can make for a joyful time in a city where people often seem afraid to laugh in case it gives them wrinkles.
The Bastille, a grim fourteenth-century fortress serving as a state prison and long despised as a symbol of despotism, used to guard the insalubrious eastern reaches of Paris. In July 1789, after months of anti-royal unrest and food riots, an angry mob got wind that the place was being used to stamp out opposition, and decided to storm the fortress. Two days after the Bastille was taken, the National Assembly ordered that it be razed to the ground – all that remains of the fortress is a few lumps of masonry, some of which are visible in the Bastille metro station. The event is now seen as the first step in the French Revolution – within four years, the king, queen and more than 1300 aristocrats had been beheaded.
The Fall of the Bastille came to represent the triumph of the people over tyranny and oppression, which is why a radical government, at the start of the Third Republic, declared its anniversary the national day of celebrations, in ‘880. Today, on the morning of July 14, military Parades take place all over the country, showing off the products of France’s thriving arms industry. Obviously, the centrepiece is the defile that trundles along the avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris, where the President of the Republic surveys his troops, of which he is supreme oommander. New members of France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur, receive their medals, and government members, other politicians and all kinds of VIPs sit in the grandstand, pretending to look interested in columns of policemen, the Foreign Legion and the gendarmerie. There are fly-pasts by the French Airforce, demonstrations of the latest fighter helicopters, Mirage jets and bombers. Tanks, troop carriers and all manner of artillery pass by as the defiant notes of La Marseillaise played by military brass bands ring out. In the past – that is, straight after World War II, when a triumphant General de Gaulle led the parade to celebrate liberation and a bright new future – all of this made sense, but it can now strike the outsider as somewhat bizarre.
Believe it or not, far more interesting times are to be had at the local fire station, which give you a real taste of the fete populaire, or working-class party. Since the 1930s, the bats des pompiers, or firemen’s balls, have been the traditional venues for the most enjoyable night out on Bastille Day. One of the best and the biggest firemen’s balls is in the Marais Fire Station in Paris’ rue de Sevigne – ask around or enquire at the tourist office for other good bashes; recommended stations are those on rue Blanche (9th arrondissement, near Montmartre) and rue des Vieux-Colombiers (6th, near St-Sulpice). The less chic outer districts of the capital, to the north and east (13th—15th and 18th-20th arrondissements), tend to be more fun. Things don’t really get started until late evening but the fire stations are full to the roof by midnight. And, who knows, if you ask nicely, you might even get a chance to slide down the pole.