Yesterday was Bastille Day, the French National Day which marks the storming of the infamous Bastille prison in Paris on 14 July 1789.
The storming became the symbol of the revolution for both military and political reasons. Not only did it hold a large cache of ammunition and gunpowder, but also the Bastille was home to political prisoners whose writings had displeased the royal government. In other words, it became a symbol of the absolutism of the monarchy and the deep injustices in French society.
It serves, of course, as a striking parallel to the Arab uprisings today. While a desperate act, revolution is justified so it seems by desperate circumstances. Since 1789 France has had its ups and downs but 200 years later, the revolution delivered a solid, prosperous and profoundly more equitable nation in which its citizens sincerely rally to the cry of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’.
I had the good fortune to spend my first Bastille Day in lovely Aix-en-Provence, where I am currently living. We watched the Paris happenings on television, with the Bastille Day parade going down the Champs-Elysées and towards the Place de la Concorde from where the President, his Prime Minister and members of the Government observe proceedings.
Invariably, the event is characterised by pomp and splendour but also by an overt presence of the military. This is a day which reminds us of both the political and military importance of the 14 July 1789.
It is, in fact, Europe’s largest (and oldest) annual military parade, and for three hours troops march down the most spectacular thoroughfare in Europe, followed by a paraphernalia of military hardware from the mighty Leclerc tanks to armoured-personnel carriers and a huge array of logistical and support vehicles.
If you’re wondering what cash-strapped Europe’s defence cuts might mean for the French military, well the conclusion I reached is that they’re holding their own very well. If you compare the standing and operational capacity of the French armed forces to the British, well… it looks to me like we might be calling in a favour or two from the French military in the coming years.
Admittedly, my conclusion is based on spectacle and not having done any research whatsoever – but it was gently reinforced as we headed down to the Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence’s splendid tree-lined avenue in the centre of the old town, to watch the local Bastille Day parade.
It was a fine occasion. Locals flocked to see a selection of impressively equipped, locally garrisoned units from the marines, army and air force parade to the tune of the Marseillaise under the watchful eye of the centre-right Mayor, Maryse Joissains-Masini, and the General with oversight for the regional protection of the South of France. The political and the military in common purpose; a reaffirmation of belief in the French state and a tribute to the importance of the role of the military in protecting the nation. The local Aixois clapped enthusiastically before returning to restaurants and cafés to continue their food and wine.
To my mind, it was a dignified tribute not only to the legacy of the French revolution, but also to the heroism of those fighting for a more just society in today’s Arab uprisings.
You can read more of Andrew's opinions on his blog