Image: Fireworks light up the celebrations for 14 July, or Bastille Day / Image: Yann Caradec/Flickr
When I was 11 years old, I was confronted with what would appear to be a simple decision: I received a letter from my new school requesting that I choose which language to study. Little did I realise that by ticking off the box in front of French rather than Spanish, German or Latin, I was sealing my future fate. Thirty years later, I’d find myself married to a François rather than a Francesco or a Frank, living in Paris instead of Madrid, Santiago or Vienna, and reflecting on what it means to be an American in Paris on Friday, 14 July 2017, a day steeped in symbolism when a US president that I didn’t vote for comes to visit a French president for whom I would have voted had I been allowed.
Le quatorze juillet
The French celebrate le quatorze juillet to commemorate the storming of the Bastille (14 July 1789) and the Fête de la Fédération (14 July 1790). In 1880, the 14 July was proclaimed a national holiday and has been celebrated ever since with a military parade in Paris.
Since the end of World War I (except for the period of German Occupation from 1940-44), the French President and hundreds of thousands of citizens gather on the Champs Elysée to watch the military parade. The President of the Republic often uses the occasion of the 14 juillet to make political statements. For example, in 2007, troops from the other 26 EU member states marched to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome; the parade in 2014 commemorated the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI with representatives of the 80 nations that participated in the war invited to the ceremony.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Americans love to celebrate Bastille Day, as the holiday is called in the Anglophone world, with viewings of The Triplets of Belleville, wine tastings and parades. From New York City to New Orleans to Philadelphia to Milwaukee, Americans fete the occasion with a passion and friendship that belies a relationship with France that can best be described as love-hate despite the fact that France has consistently been a staunch ally of the US since the Revolutionary War (think Lafayette and both World Wars versus “freedom fries,” the Iraq War, and “cheese eating surrender monkeys”).
14 July 2017
Late last month, Emmanuel Macron invited Donald Trump to be his guest of honour this 14 juillet with a dinner at a chic restaurant located inside the Eiffel Tower followed by the place of honor at the military parade (which will also include American troops this year to celebrate 100 years of the entry of the USA into WW1). This is despite the fact that Trump supported Macron’s opponent, the far-right populist Marinne Le Pen, in France’s recent elections, the two men are at opposite sides of the climate change debate, and as recently as a month ago, Trump declared that he “was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
The irony of Trump’s visit to France and his new-found bromance with Macron lies in the symbolism of this day, which represents overcoming the despotism of monarchy and the oppression of people who spoke up as well as the reality of these two modern leaders. Over the course of one year, between 14 juillet 1789 and 1790, France had abolished feudalism and adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen, a document that intended to protect French citizens' equality, freedom of speech, and political representation. America’s Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence grew out of this same Enlightenment philosophy. How does this jive with the train wreck that is Trump’s presidency as well as Macron’s channeling of the Sun King at Versailles?
Luckily, both French and Americans can choose how to celebrate this occasion. For those who want to support the festivities, I suggest you make your way to the Champs early Friday morning. For those who hate Trump, there is a No Trump Zone party in the Place de la République on the evening of the 13th and a "Don't Let Your Guard Down Against Trump" march on the 14th that starts from the Place de Clichy. I know where I will be. And if the recent Pew Research study is correct, 86% of the French population will be joining me there, at least in spirit.
Edna Ayme-Yahil is Head of Communications for EIT Digital and board member of the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD). She lives in Paris with her French husband and 10-year-old bi-cultural daughter.