“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness....”
I was reminded of the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities—a book which gave me goosebumps as a teenager, taking me through the terrors of the French Revolution. In the very same country, under a completely changed socio-political milieu, I could not help but reflect as kaleidoscopic scenes flashed across my eyes.
On July 14 and 15, Paris was splendorous, as Parisians celebrated the Bastille Day and their historic win in the FIFA World Cup. I would consider the military parade of July 14 the most glorious event I witnessed during my ten-month stint in the city. Since 1880, the French have celebrated July 14 as their National Day or La Fête Nationale, also known as the Bastille Day. It commemorates the storming of Bastille by the revolutionaries, which marked a turning point in the French Revolution.
As I wanted to ensure a good view of the grand military parade, I was advised to go as early as 7am to Champs-Elysees, at a distance of 4km from my residence. We managed to start by 8am and consequently reached nowhere near Arc de Triomphe; we had to compromise at a spot near Rue Lincoln, but were fortunate enough to get a good view of the parade. Thousands of people lined up on both sides of the street to salute the military forces. On the way, we met some military personnel and clicked some pictures with them. I was surprised to find a six-foot, gun-toting soldier smiling and chatting in a friendly manner. We held our positions and I hoped to sneak in a little bit more in the half hour I had. As the military troops made their final preparations, I was most excited at the prospect of seeing the charming [Emmanuel] Macron and the Aerial Flypast. It was sunny, and refreshments were being provided to the men and women in uniform. The spectators obviously belonged to different nationalities, but all of them waved the French flag; I had three in hand, as my husband and daughter were busy taking videos. “I am 90, but I make it a point to be a part of these celebrations every year, because it is a reminder of the values of equality, liberty and fraternity which we have always upheld,” said an aged man who came to see the parade with his grandson.
The troops steadied themselves, indicating the arrival of the president. Cavalry procession, with the accompaniment of a band, majestically escorted the president, who, standing atop a military vehicle, reviewed the troops and waved happily at the spectators. This world leader who aspires to be the most powerful man in the EU was indeed charismatic. The much-awaited Aerial Flypast began soon after, with almost 100 aircrafts and helicopters, and was greeted with cheers of delight from the crowd. The military aircrafts flew the tricolour of the French national flag, but the release of a wrong colour by one of the Alpha jets added an additional red to the end of the French flag. In the excitement and fervour it went unnoticed, but was later reported by the media. The military parade, according to the official brochure, had almost 4,300 soldiers, 220 vehicles and around 100 aircrafts. The parade was magnificent, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy my Indian eye, mesmerised many times by the stunning, unparalleled Republic Day parade of India.
The real spectacle awaited us at the Eiffel Tower—the magical fireworks at night. When we reached Champ de Mars by about 9.15pm, the crowd was huge. Thousands gathered in the streets to watch the fireworks display scheduled for 11pm. We managed to find a spot along the banks of the Seine river. No words could describe the exuberance that followed. The iron lady changed into ‘a temporary beacon of beauty, celebrating love, sharing and friendliness’, as promised by Paris City Hall. The theme of the display was LOVE. The entire skyline lit up as dazzling fireworks burst off from the Eiffel Towers and the gardens of Trocadero. The images of Thrissur Pooram flooded my mind and I reprimanded myself for the impulse to compare every experience in a foreign country with something or the other in my homeland. At the same time, my mind overflowed with a sense of pride at the treasure trove of images my country has gifted me with. The dazzling pyrotechnic show at the Eiffel Tower is a must-watch, and I felt really lucky to be a part of this event. Festivities, merriment, and parties continued the whole night and the French, without doubt, celebrated July 14—the day symbolic of liberation—in its true spirits.
The celebrations in France did not end as the French expected Les Blues to bring World Cup home. On July 15, Sunday, we joined the thousands that gathered in the streets to see the action live on the big screen. The third goal by the French team seemed to confirm victory and the crowd started partying by continuously honking, bursting crackers, and, with the fourth goal, the crowd became frenzied. The World Cup win seemed to unite the city and up to one million supporters filled the avenues. Bikes and cars accelerated through the streets, waving the French flag. The crowd was diverse, multi-cultural, but the spirit was one. The mirth, merriment and revelry gradually degraded into hooliganism as the night proceeded. Smoke bomb and flares covered the streets and most supporters were evidently drunk. The police had to use water cannons and tear gas on the fans unwilling to disperse. Crowd and noise could never intimidate a middle-class Indian, but the spoilsport activities forced us to take asylum in the safety of our home. Once again, the pictures of vandalism and violence I have seen in India clouded my mind. People and cities were the same everywhere; it took only minutes for the mask of sophistication to fall off.
The two days of celebration uncovered different faces of Paris. From magnificence, dignity and patriotism, to merriment, revelry, enjoyment, and further to violence, hooliganism; I felt like I saw the best and worst of my world in Paris in those 48 hours.