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Tuesday, Jul 19, 2011, 9:08 am

France’s Bastille Day Military March Sparks Another Controversy

By Cole Stangler

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France’s Bastille Day Parade, commemorated annually on July 14 with a military march on the iconic Champs Elysées in Paris, is once again embroiled in controversy.

Last year, the spectacle was imbued with colonialist nostalgia, as thirteen of France’s former African colonies contributed troops for the military march. For a few hours, President Sarkozy got to relive the glory of the past as he was joined by some old friends—in the stand sat the heads of state of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Togo.

This year, another political brouhaha has erupted—one perhaps equally as rooted in France’s militaristic past. Eva Joly, the current presidential candidate for the Green Party-Europe Ecology coalition, has ignited a firestorm by suggesting that France do away with its military parade altogether. “I dreamed we could replace this parade with a citizen’s parade where we could see schoolchildren, where we could see students, where we could also see seniors marching under the happiness of being together, of celebrating the values that unite us,” Joly said last Thursday, Bastille Day (aka French National Day).

What doesn’t seem like too crazy of an idea—indeed, one is hard-pressed to identify another democracy that engages in a ritual usually confined to authoritarian states like China or North Korea—has drawn the ire of the entire French political class, left and right.

Several people have insisted that Joly learn her French history—an accusation that just might have a little something to do with the fact that Joly, a dual-citizen, was born in Norway.

“I think this woman hasn’t been steeped very long in French traditions, of French values, of French history,” right-wing Prime Minister François Fillon said, undoubtedly referring to Joly’s Norwegian heritage.

Lionel Tardy, a right-wing parliamentarian, put it more bluntly. “It’s time for Eva Joly to go back to Norway,” he said.

The scandal, even if it subsides in the next few days, is emblematic of the current political climate in France—where questions like what it really means to be French, or what France’s republican values of liberty, equality, and fraternity really mean, have become matters of utmost national importance to Sarkozy’s government.

Since his election in 2007, Sarkozy has created a new “Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Codevelopment,” he attempted to create an online dialogue on “national identity” that was marred by xenophobic and Islamophobic rants and eventually abandoned, promoted the so-called burqa ban in public places, and forcibly evicted and deported Roma immigrants.

The construction of French republican identity, along with its values and mythologies, is, much like that of the United States, a long, complex and contradictory story. But it’s also evident that the current government has paid its fair share in contributing to the climate of xenophobia. It’s unsurprising, then, that the candidate of the far-right, National Front party Marine Le Pen, appears headed to a second-round run off in the presidential elections in April 2012.

Besides the xenophobia that undergirds some of Joly’s critics, the fierce backlash can also be explained by Joly touching on what is a profoundly sensitive nerve in the French state: its militarism. That doing away with the military parade disrespects the history and service of the French military and its contribution to French values, is something nearly everyone can agree on—even those who say they are offended by the tone. 

"Clearly, it's not acceptable," Martine Aubry, a major contender for the Socialist Party (PS) presidential nomination, said of the idea. "It doesn't even make sense.”

“The military parade has its place,” said Segolene Royal, another PS contender and former presidential candidate. “French people should not split apart over their July 14, their flag, their identity, their history.”

But as the online news site Rue 89 has pointed out, the French military hasn’t always been a friend of the republic or democracy. In 1958, a group of hardline anti-communist generals led by Raoul Salan called for President De Gaulle to “save [the former colony of] Algeria from abandonment,” and then organized a failed military coup to overthrow the De Gaulle regime. Under the Fifth Republic, established in 1958, it was critical, as Pascal Riché writes, to “solemnly reaffirm, every July, the link between the people and its army… One needed to show symbolically that military power was solidly integrated with the Republic—submissive to it.”

In every other nation, the history of the state is always more complex than politicians make it out to be. But perhaps more so than in any other Western democracy, this debate reveals just how deeply the French political class clings to its symbols, identities and myths. It also reveals what kind of comments—Joly only said she “dreamed” of a citizen’s parade—grab headline news in a political climate haunted by xenophobia and the specters of the far right.

Beneath the layers of militarism, xenophobia and state mythologies that have clouded the entire debate, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the May ’68 student radical turned Green Party EU parliamentarian, has probably been the most refreshing voice of reason. 

“I invite François Fillon to reread or to listen again to Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré, Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon,” Cohn-Bendit said, referring to some of the nation’s most celebrated leftist artists. “Because, Mr. Fillon, France isn’t limited to generals Salan and Massu.”

Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at] Follow him @colestangler.

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