Bastille Day Is a Military Holiday Out of Donald Trump’s Fantasies

France and America are seeking rapprochement at an annual pageant that today is less about liberty, equality, and solidarity than tanks, drones, and missiles.

TOPSHOT - French troops of the Republican Guard on horseback take part in the annual Bastille Day military parade, on July 14, 2016. 
France holds annual Bastille Day military parade with troops from Australia and New Zealand as special guests among the 3,000 soldiers who will march up the Champs Elysees avenue. They will be accompanied by 200 vehicles with 85 aircraft flying overhead. / AFP / DOMINIQUE FAGET        (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - French troops of the Republican Guard on horseback take part in the annual Bastille Day military parade, on July 14, 2016. France holds annual Bastille Day military parade with troops from Australia and New Zealand as special guests among the 3,000 soldiers who will march up the Champs Elysees avenue. They will be accompanied by 200 vehicles with 85 aircraft flying overhead. / AFP / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s attendance at the Bastille Day festivities in Paris on Friday, confirmed at the beginning of the month, has inspired grumbling in France. The American head of state, invited by French President Emmanuel Macron, scores direly in French opinion polls, his approval ratings (around 14 percent) a dispiriting contrast with the adulation showered on Barack Obama. Denounced by the left — “the 14 Juillet is a celebration of the liberty of the French people,” declared France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who added that “Mr. Trump is a brute, he is not welcome” — the planned visit has sparked objections even in the friendlier halls of the French-American Foundation, the think tank conceived by the Council on Foreign Relations to combat the scourge of Gallic anti-Americanism. Liberal pundit Gaspard Koenig, a laureate of the foundation’s Young Leaders program — like the two most recent inhabitants of the Élysée — singled out the incongruity of Trump’s appearance at a ceremony honoring the revolutionary inheritance of equality and human rights. “Nothing is more opposed to this democratic tradition,” judged the Les Echos columnist, “than the authoritarian whims of Donald Trump.”

Yet there is reason to think the U.S. president will not feel out of place amid the jingo and vainglory of the Paris pageant.

From its inception in 1880, the July 14 gala has engendered polemic in France. The date itself reflects a hard-fought compromise aimed at placating radical republicans and conservative monarchists alike. Officially, it commemorates both the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789, reflected in English-language usage, and the 1790 Festival of Federation, a royal jubilee ordained by Louis XVI. The national holiday was to furnish a means of shoring up the precarious legitimacy of the Third Republic, which emerged out of defeat by Germany and the collapse of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, and took shape under the menace of social insurrection from below and monarchist restoration from above. July 14 gestured to the country’s revolutionary legacy, but was also a show of strength aimed at impressing enemies abroad and subduing opponents at home. At the center of that display of power were the republic’s armed forces.

For bourgeois politicians of the Belle Époque, the army was at once indispensable to defense of the empire overseas and maintenance of order in mainland France, regularly tasked with strikebreaking and domestic policing. It was also a persistent threat to civilian authority, the reactionary officer corps a bastion of anti-republican sentiment. The annual military parade, soon eclipsing popular balls and other entertainment as the centerpiece of the July holiday, staged unity as well as power. Challenged at the outset by left-wing anti-militarism and monarchist intransigence, this dramaturgy would be triumphantly confirmed in 1914 to 1918 under the wartime imperative of Union sacrée — sacred national unity.

U.S. participation in this year’s event is ostensibly meant to commemorate the centenary of American entry into World War I. On July 4, 1917, three months after Congress voted to declare war against Imperial Germany, a battalion of the U.S. 16th Infantry Regiment marched alongside French soldiers through Paris from Les Invalides to the Picpus Cemetery, resting place of the Marquis de Lafayette, serenaded by “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “La Marseillaise.” Speeches underscored the historic sources of Franco-American amity and common origins of the two countries’ 18th-century revolutions. Public enthusiasm carried into the French function 10 days later, the most extravagant military display since the opening of hostilities. The French government seized on July 14 as an opportunity to vaunt the national armed forces — bled white on the Western Front and troubled by mutinous stirrings — and reassert, against pacifist critics, the need for total mobilization.

One year later, in 1918, American troops joined other Entente delegations in a resplendent July 14 parade and July 4 was again observed with fervor in the French capital. Across the Atlantic, President Woodrow Wilson took in his country’s Independence Day procession on Pennsylvania Avenue. A solitary regiment of infantry and army engineers lent a “martial touch” to the cortege, showcasing foreign-born U.S. citizens, but the proceedings were otherwise dominated by civic groups like the Boy Scouts and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Afterward, crowds were treated to an allegorical pageant in which, according to the New York Times, “Humanity summoned Justice to her aid, who in turn called upon Columbia, representing the United States.… Then followed the heralds of the allied nations, announcing the coming of the Hope of the World, Triumphant Democracy.”

Observers at the time and since have remarked on the contrast between French and American rites of national independence, especially striking in the different roles assigned to the military. While parades in Washington and elsewhere invariably include members of the armed forces, there is little to measure against the missile launchers and armored divisions of the modern-day French exhibition. That has prompted the odd suggestion that American society is perhaps somehow allergic to militarism — a mind-bending notion for anyone who has ever witnessed a sporting event or political rally in the country.

Arriving in France on Thursday morning, Trump met Macron for a military ceremony at Les Invalides in the afternoon and a visit to the tombs of Napoleon and World War I commander Ferdinand Foch, which was followed by a private meeting. Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron toured the Notre Dame cathedral and relished a boat cruise along the Seine before joining their spouses for supper at Le Jules Verne, Alain Ducasse’s Michelin-starred restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. The following morning, the two men will regroup at the Place de la Concorde to preside over the July 14 parade. 145 Americans, five in vintage Doughboy breeches and puttees, have been slated to march at the head of nearly 4,000 soldiers assembled for the event. Drawn from across the service branches, the U.S. contingent includes a detachment from the Army 1st Infantry Division, the “Big Red One,” symbolically recalling the 1917 Independence Day cavalcade. In another historical flourish, World War I-era Schneiders and Saint-Chamonds will roll alongside late-model AMX Leclerc tanks and light reconnaissance vehicles. A closing ceremony has been organized in tribute to the victims of the attack in Nice last year that left 86 dead, with a military band performance of the city’s anthem, “Nissa la Bella,” fading into a medley — per the Ministry of Defense — of Daft Punk compositions.

F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-22 Raptors are expected to take to the skies together with dozens of French aircraft. But the most anticipated guest at the air show is a remotely piloted General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. The drone, making its Bastille Day debut, will do double duty, hovering ceremonially while providing real-time surveillance footage to the security services. A source of pride for the Air Force, this addition throws light on some of the ambiguities of the 2017 display. The Reaper is an invaluable asset to ongoing missions in Africa’s Sahel region, where French forces have been continuously engaged in operations for more than four years. But the purchase of U.S.-manufactured drones — the first two were acquired in 2013, and a dozen are expected to be on hand by 2019 — has spurred some discontent in France, stoked lately by debate over whether the unmanned vehicles should be armed. As a condition of its contract with the Pentagon, France relies on American personnel to maintain the machines and must seek permission from Washington for their deployment. A report by the French Senate Armed Forces Committee in May, regretting the curtailment of French sovereignty imposed by the weapons system, acknowledged that any decision to equip them with missiles would likewise have to be cleared by the United States.

A spree of military escapades over the past decade has done nothing to soothe doubts about France’s lack of autonomy. The 2011 assault on Libya, trumpeted by the État Major as a master stroke of French arms, revealed embarrassing signs of inadequacy, corroborated by experience in Mali and Chad. Furia francese depends heavily on allied assistance for transport, intelligence, inflight refueling, and close air support. Early in the spring 2011 campaign it was clear that the United States would have to take charge. French sorties, granted symbolic pride of place in the offensive, were preceded by a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from American ships and submarines in the Mediterranean, destroying Libyan air defenses. Operations in Iraq and Syria give little more grounds for cheer.

Nor have France’s periodic plans since the conclusion of World War II for a common European defense policy offered much consolation. Such continental reveries are undermined by parochial considerations of interest and ill-favored by the strategic logic of nuclear deterrence. But they always remain close to the surface for Western Europeans anxious about their place in the world, and are reactivated by periodic crises or eruptions of American disregard. Trump’s election fit the bill. In the lead-up to the November 2016 election, the candidate’s irreverent attitude toward NATO and his occasional departure from interventionist boilerplate rattled nerves in Paris and Berlin. Complaints about insufficient allied spending, long vented by Yankee supremos, have been especially irksome for Europeans coming from the ructious Apprentice mogul. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the heels of the American president’s failure to acclaim Article 5 of the alliance treaty at a late May summit, enjoined Europeans to “really take our fate into our own hands” and stake out independence vis-à-vis an unreliable hegemon as vexing on defense as on trade and climate issues.

Macron, seen scurrying after Trump to pose and glad-hand at last week’s G-20 confab, seems inclined to try a different tack. What stands to be gained from any rapprochement is uncertain, but the Bastille Day visit will be an occasion for the French and American leaders to moot common ground. Saluted by the international press as an antidote to the “populist” poison of Trump, Macron in fact bears strong resemblance to his opposite number. Both campaigned as outsiders and enemies of the political establishment, celebrating the beneficence of private enterprise and scorning a political system deemed out of step with the times. Both have paired unapologetic disdain for poverty and failure to prosper with authoritarian leanings and a penchant for “civilizational” xenophobia. Without the ancien régime trappings of French office, Trump has made do with Mar-a-Lago, a Palm Beach Versailles.

So much for style. More consequentially, the French and American regimes stand shoulder to shoulder in the “war against terrorism,” invoked by Macron in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Tuesday along with the conflict in Syria as bases for Franco-American collaboration. Like Trump, he bays for intensifying the international crusade against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Washington and Paris compete to supply weaponry to the House of Saud. During the past five-year presidential term, former Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, kept on by Macron at the Quai d’Orsay, oversaw an annual average of $3.2 billion in arms sales to Riyadh. French operations overseas are a boon to the defense industry. As politicians have proudly emphasized, “battle-tested” materiel enjoys a competitive advantage. Hard cash will be made from the gewgaws and quincaillerie festooned on the Champs-Élysées on Friday.

Born of the threefold desire to shore up parliamentary legitimacy, dramatize national power, and bind an obdurate officer corps to republican government, the 14 Juillet today may fairly be thought to have exhausted its historical role. The 1789 Revolution, declared “over” a decade before its bicentenary, is no longer central to political debate in France. Visions of French grandeur, dazzlingly awakened midcentury by Charles de Gaulle, were reinterred with the author of the Fifth Republic. Reconciliation between the republic and its army admittedly took longer in coming; officers carried out the putsch that toppled the postwar regime and returned de Gaulle to power. Only with the peaceful inauguration of a Socialist president, in 1981, were fears of praetorian revolt put to rest.

But the July 14 parade, an ornamental arms bazaar and nationalist fanfaronade, retains at least one aspect of its original vocation. It choreographs — televised now to audiences in France and abroad — an idealized self-representation of the French military’s place in public life. In this respect, preparations around the 2017 ceremony are as symbolic as the shindig itself.

Under the dispensations of France’s ongoing state of emergency, prolonged a sixth time by parliamentary vote last week, upward of 11,000 police, gendarmes, and other law enforcement agents were called up to maintain order Thursday and Friday in the capital and its surroundings. “So that,” Paris Préfet of Police Michel Delpuech explained, “these days remain a party.” The Champs-Élysées and the Champ de Mars, viewing sites for fireworks in the evening, are going to be entirely fenced off. Would-be revelers, forbidden alcoholic drinks in these “security and protection zones,” can look forward to searches of their personal belongings and systematic identity checks. Trump will be the first American president to attend since George H.W. Bush in 1989, and his presence has redoubled already high levels of vigilance in a France where, since the terrorist attacks of 2015, some 10,000 soldiers have been deployed on home soil. One thousand of these, detailed to Paris, will be on hand this week to reinforce the civilian security forces.

As French engagement in the “global war on terror” has escalated, politicians speak more and more freely of “internal enemies,” a usage given juridical form by the emergency legislation. Le Drian, writing last year, delineated a “continuity between threats against the home front and the external front.” The collapsed distinction between internal and external security is not, however, uniformly embraced. “Some on the left,” the minister of defense lamented in 2013, “have a certain allergy with respect to war and to the army.” Before the 2012 presidential contest, Green Party candidate Eva Joly went so far as to propose the elimination of the military parade from the July 14 calendar, a hoary ideal of the fin de siècle left, long since marginalized. Antimilitarists, Le Drian observed, “forget that war and the republic are concomitant,” victory in the former the condition of sovereignty for the latter. Ancestors fought for their right to fête.

Yet voices otherwise little suspect of pacifism or leftist sympathies have also been heard to dissent from the reigning consensus. Gen. Vincent Desportes, the iconoclastic former head of French military education, imparted a biting assessment of French strategy and Atlanticist shibboleths in public remarks last autumn. “We’ve bombed Daesh enough to provoke the Bataclan and Nice,” Desportes commented, “but not enough to prevent them.” Speaking two months before the U.S. election, he called on policymakers to abandon their starry-eyed fascination with American omnipotence — itself incapable of transforming operational mastery into strategic success — and disabuse themselves of self-deceit retailed as commemoration. “The idea that Private Ryan might return to die on the beaches of Normandy is an illusion,” the general asseverated. Not a conviction apt to be swayed by antique armor and period dress, however thick the Franco-American presidential flummery.

Photo credit: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Grey Anderson is a historian. He is writing a book on the origins of the French Fifth Republic.

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