Every year on the 14th of July, the French celebrate Bastille Day, a holiday commemorating the success of the French Revolution and the rise of democratic ideals. In both circumstance and substance, the holiday is very similar to Independence Day in the United States: both celebrate the move towards democracy and the overthrow of “old-world” governments in countries heavily influenced by The Enlightenment. Both are in July, and both are celebrated with a day off work, parades and fireworks.
A few days before the 14th, a French friend (who’d been in the U.S. for the 4th of July a couple years prior) explained to me that the celebrations wouldn’t be quite the same as what I was used to in the U.S. for Independence Day, because there would be no overt displays of patriotism. No one would be wearing the national colors, flying flags, singing or playing patriotic songs, etc. The reason for this, she explained, was that these things were seen as “far-right” behavior, demonstrations of nationalist extremism.
This was echoed by two other French acquaintances when I asked them about it later, though they were quick to also expressed regret that it was this way. They were proud of their country and wanted to show it, but they didn’t feel like they could because of the stigma. “It’s a shame,” one said, “that it is like this in France. I don’t know why it is like this, but it is…”
The prediction was right. The whole day – even at the fireworks – I didn’t see a single person carrying a French flag, wearing France-themed clothes, or even wearing blue white and red. Although I did see a couple small flags hanging from apartment windows, there were still less than you would see on a normal day in the United States.
While riding the metro to the fireworks with some friends, I did see a group of three young girls with French flags painted on their cheeks. At first I was excited by this – not because I think French should be more patriotic, but because (in light of what I’d been told), I assumed it was a kind of provocative political statement, and I was curious to see how others on the metro would react. Would people stare? scoff? exchange words? – or even fight? But when the girls happened to take a place on the train right near us, and started talking, my excitement was immediately deflated – they were Americans! So the only outward sign of patriotism that I witnessed was nothing more than a projection of American enthusiasm onto the French holiday.
While I am a little too new to France for my opinion to carry much weight, I don’t think that the French are un-patriotic people. I suspect that their national pride – which is very evident in their protectiveness of their language, their resentment of foreign competition, and other aspects of their culture – is simply overpowered by their liberal ideals.
In any case, the fireworks were excellent. I’ve uploaded a few photos to my Picasa account, though in fairness to the France’s “fireworks reputation,” the pictures really don’t do them justice.