Bastille Day. I hadn’t planned to celebrate it but a sudden fly by over the rooftops of Montmartre by Patrouille de France (PAF) on it’s training run for the big day, changed my mind. Maybe it was the colossal roar of the engine or the bold trail of tricolore that it left behind. That rapidly vaporising wake of red, white and blue was a calling card. An invitation. Come to our Fête Nationale. It hasn’t even started yet and look, we’re already making your windows rattle and your walls shake. It was pretty hard to resist, even for me.
Emotional Public Celebration Baggage
My experience of ‘public celebrations’ has been scarred by messed up Millennium fireworks, crowded events and being five foot two in a crowd. Think armpits, shoulder blades, being hit in the face by bags and you have some idea of my typical vista at public events. Something strange happened after the fly past by those jets. I started to feel quite patriotic, even though I’m only a legal alien in France. That was just the sort of theatrical Bastille Day celebration I could buy into.
La Fête Nationale is celebrated on 14th July each year. It marks the storming of the Bastille on, yup, you’ve guessed it, 14th July 1790. Capturing the Bastille was pivotal in the French revolution. Whenever I think of la revolution, the wonderful Madame Defarge, a character from Dickens’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ springs to mind. I like to think of her sitting there with a watchful eye at the stitch and bitch. Compiling her hit list, mouth pulled tight into a belligerent pout.
“To me, women!’ cried Madame his wife. ‘What! We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!’ And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in revenge and hunger.”
Now there’s a woman who isn’t going to take a bag in the face. Embracing a little something of her revolutionary don’t mess with me zeal, I was up and out first thing on Sunday morning to walk down to the Champs Élysées.
In Paris, you can pretty much divide Bastille Day into three sections. The morning sees a huge military parade take place along the Champs Élysées. During the day, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower on the Champ de Mars, a symphonic concert. In the evening, a firework display over the Eiffel Tower.
Follow the herd
I’d been walking to the Champs Élysées for about forty minutes when crowds started to converge. Tourists, French families, groups of friends, their numbers multiplying with each step. Google maps directed me to a street barricaded by the police. Upon hearing “Papiers” from the police, I turned off my GPS and followed the herd.
The crowd snaked it’s way down two streets, coming to an abrupt halt. Two more police vans, barriers, paramedics and police blocked our way. Hundreds of people began to amass behind the cordon. We were still almost two hours ahead of the parade, so we waited. As the crowd increased, it became increasingly unclear what was going on. Every now and again, someone in the crowd made their way to the barrier, asked the police what was happening, usually, met by a shrug or “Not yet.”
No one had been allowed to pass in over thirty minutes. I stood on top of a concrete planter and took some photographs. There was nothing to see except a wide, empty boulevard stretching ahead towards the Champs Élysées. I could even see a handful of people lining the route through my lens. It certainly didn’t look “Full.” Anything but.
After an hour, nothing had changed. Constant questioning of the police “Monsieur, monsieur, just me and my family” met with “And everyone else and their family.” It must have felt like the worst kind of groundhog day for the police who were now most emphatic in their response. No one was getting through. Not now. Not at any point. We were all so near and yet so very, very far away, on the wrong side of that spacious, empty boulevard. Some Bastille Day.
After waiting patiently to be allowed to pass through, the mood amongst the crowd began to change.
Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité!
A low boo began to emanate from the swarm of bodies at the front, now compressed against each other. A white haired, man standing next to me shouted “Liberté!” laughing to himself as he shook his head. Someone else shouted “Égalité!” followed by the beginning of a chant. A protest song rose, hung in the air and fell. A man in his early twenties on the opposite side of the street, just in front of the police vans, managed to somehow elevate himself above the crowd. He began leading another chant with fervour. There was a surge of people. He bellowed increasingly angry orders, hurling spittle over hundreds of heads. His attempts to mobilise a mini revolution were met with sporadic animation followed by the boredom that only comes with standing for too long. Inertia followed by periodical cheers. Helicopters began circling overhead.
Time to go
The good humour of the crowd was beginning to evaporate. There was a perceptible shift. A tanned, middle aged man wearing an expensive blazer and Ray Bans, sauntered up to the police. He waved his hands around for a while with the kind of non verbal communication reserved for subordinates. The police backed off as he presented papers. A moment later he was on his phone. Within a matter of seconds, a group of young women materialised by his side. They were allowed through unchallenged. Those who could see these events unfold at the front, let out a long, contemptuous hiss.
It slowly dawned on me that standing as I was, right next to a barrier would be the worst place possible if the crowd surged with any semblance of purpose. More boos. More chants. I’d joined in the laughter at the beginning, but no one was laughing anymore. The words powder keg swam in my head several times before I began listening to them. I made the decision to leave, hot on the tail of Mr Liberté who was now making a swift exit. I figured at around 6 foot, he’d be much better equipped to create a pathway through the hundreds of bodies now sardined together along three streets.
Yellow Vests & Bastille Day
Meandering back to Montmartre, I passed fluttering flags held aloft by throngs of people still heading towards the barricaded streets, erroneously expecting to make it to the Champs Élysées. I figured if I found a bigger expanse of sky, away from the tall buildings of the city, I would at least see the jets again. It didn’t happen. I spent Bastille evening celebrating with a new American friend in Abbesses. Relaying the story to her, she shrugged, “Gilets Jaunes.”
Later that day, I learned that crowds had surged in an attempt to get through police blockades. After the parade there had been violent clashes between the police and demonstrators. There were reports that the yellow vests were involved in the protests. Bins were set alight and street fires started by protestors. Tear gas and rubber bullets were used by police to disperse the demonstrators resulting in over 150 arrests. The evening of 14th July also saw Algeria score the winning goal against Nigeria, qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations. The ensuing celebrations sparked more disturbances, police intervention and arrests.
As I walked down the moonlit hill from Abbesses at midnight all I could hear were the hooting of car horns and fireworks in the distance. My quiet little corner of Montmartre was still full of people sitting in pavement cafes, laughing, smoking, drinking, unaware of what was taking place elsewhere in Paris. It really was a tale of two cities.