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Drab as Olive: The Plodding Pageantry of the Bastille Day Parade

bastille-day-parade-paris-flyover-light

This was the first thing in the parade − and the last thing of interest.

 

I’d like to begin this report with two recommendations. First, if you would like to have the disconcertingly novel experience of seeing a whole lot of French policeman in a good mood, smiling and wishing everyone a nice day, go the Champs Elysées on the morning of July 14th to watch the Bastille Day parade. Secondly, if you would like to watch the Bastille Day parade, don’t go to the Champs Elysées on the morning of July 14th.

Traditionally a showcase for the French military, the procession proceeds from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, where the president sits on a dais, surrounded by illustrious dignitaries and even more illustrious fashion models, and reviews the troops. Anyone can request and reserve a seat in the temporary grandstands set up at the bottom of the Champs near Concorde, but the thousands of spectators who fail to do this, whether through ignorance or sloth (or in my case both), have to make do with standing room, crowding as best they can around the upper part of the avenue.

The parade is scheduled for 10:00 am. Figuring that, like everything else in France – with the sole exception of retirement – it would start late, I arrived at about 10:15 and took up a position near Franklin D. Roosevelt Métro, where I could see assembled groups of uniformed soldiers in formation, ready and rarin’ to go.

Well, actually, ready to go. Well, actually, almost ready to go. They weren’t so much in formation as just milling around:

 

bastille-day-parade-paris-milling-around

French soldiers demonstrating the crisp discipline that makes the parade such a magnificent spectacle.


Paraders and parade-watchers alike stood there staring at each other for another 20 minutes or so, until finally a tight V formation of fighter jets streaked through the sky right over our heads, spewing out a nebulous elongated French flag of blue, white and red vapor trails. The excitement was palpable. The parade was starting!

Except that it wasn’t! The soldiers came to attention, and some march music began playing (on loudspeakers, which seemed pretty lame to me — what’s a parade without a live brass band?), but there was still no forward motion. At last, at about 10:45, a full 45 minutes after the announced “starting time,” the regiment (or battalion or brigade or platoon or whatever) in front of me started marking time in place. Then the commanding officer (or drill sergeant or drum major or dungeon master or whatever) in front of them gave the signal, and they strode smartly off in perfect unison and marched proudly and briskly down the street. For about three steps. And then stopped.

Another five minutes went by, and they moved a little more. And stopped. And then a little more. And stopped. At one point they actually marched for one single step before stopping again. Some semblance of advancement did finally materialize, but it was never constant. Various corps passed by, making jerky, halting progress. Then, after about half an hour, there was a lull of a full 20 minutes during which the tank division that happened to be in front of me at that point just sat there burning fuel, daylight and epidermal tissue.

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It was not so much like watching a military review as watching the Friday evening traffic jam on Boulevard Haussmann. And when I say “watching” I mean, of course, craning my neck to see what little I could see over the heads of the other onlookers. Naturally, it was very crowded, but I could see some of the parade some of the time like this:

 

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This anti-aircraft truck was stopped there for a good five minutes, during which the guy at the gunsights didn’t move a muscle. I started to wonder if he was a life-sized G.I. Joe doll.

 

But most of the time most of what I could see was this:

 

bastille-day-parade-paris-big-camera-in-front

The best spot I could find was standing behind this tourist. He took exactly 87 photos and has exactly 1,613 gray hairs.


Because it’s purely military, the Bastille Day extravaganza is not at all like what Americans usually imagine when they think of the word “parade.” There are no giant inflated cartoon characters, no Shriners, no Miss Popular Uprising waving from the back seat of a convertible and not even any marching bands — there was one standing band down by Concorde, but we couldn’t hear it up on the Champs. The parade is just a lot of soldiers marching or riding in combat vehicles.

There were regiments dressed in every color, from black to blue to red to pure white, including a squadron of paratroopers with dark green foundation, I mean camouflage paint, on their complexions, I mean faces:

 

bastille-day-parade-paris-green-faces

If I had to join these guys jumping out of a plane into a combat zone, my face would be green too. And I would save the state the expense of the paint.

 

There were tanks. There was even a phalanx of motorcycle cops (the gendarmes, France’s equivalent of the Highway Patrol, are in fact a military organization), who, in my opinion, should have been handing out tickets for obstructing traffic. And there were trucks: armored trucks, artillery trucks, water cannon trucks, fire trucks and trucks that looked like just plain old trucks:

 

bastille-day-parade-paris-just-trucks

I’m not sure what these moving vans were doing in the parade. Maybe they were hauling the paratroopers’ makeup kits.

 

And there were a couple of vehicles that looked like the progeny of an ill-advised one night stand between a tank and a jeep — kind of like an SUV with a manhole cover on top. From each manhole there emerged a man, standing stiffly at attention and holding a flag. However formidable a force they may be on the battlefield, in this context they looked kind of silly:

 

bastille-day-parade-paris-fighting-whack-a-moles

I’m sure these guys are tough, seasoned warriors capable of handling life-and-death situations that would make me lose excretory control, but poking out of their turrets, they looked like the 144th Fighting Whac-A-Moles.

 

 

The show was so slow and sluggish, when it was over most of the spectators on the Champs didn’t seem to register the fact — they just stood there for another 25 minutes gawking at the empty avenue. Which by that point seemed almost as interesting as the trucks. I spent those 25 minutes squeezing through the crowd and looking for an un-cordoned-off side street so I could get out of there, during which time I spotted this gentleman:

 

bastille-day-parade-paris-guy-on-roof

Was he a policeman monitoring the crowd? Or a spectator contemplating suicide to escape the tedium?

 

Later I realized what was causing the bottleneck: most of the squads did some kind of drill routine for the talent portion of the pageant in front of the review stand down at Concorde, which meant that everybody behind them had to halt for the duration. In other words, hoping to get a good view of the parade from Franklin D. Roosevelt is like hoping to get a good view of a pole dance from the parking lot. At least, I sincerely hope that’s the explanation. I’d hate to think that it was just poor organization. It’s the military, for Sarko’s sake! If they can’t get their own people to move in a timely manner down an eight-lane road with no traffic, think how long it would take them, for example, to force a despised North African despot out of power. If such a situation were ever to arise…

David Jaggard

Reader Drake Mabry writes: "Howled with laughter. As usual, David Jaggard's articles make a profound statement and are outrageously funny. Seeing the guy on the roof made me grateful that David didn't make any fast, sudden movements getting through the crowd."

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