It would have to be on Bastille Day that I Found out that they don't make parades, or kids, the way they used to.
I remember very clearly the last Bastille Day parade before World War II. I was 3 going on 4 and it was marvelous - Moroccan Spahis in swirling blue robes astride their gray and white dappled ponies and France's great allies, the English, with His Majesty's Horse Guards with their bright red jackets and mirror-polished brass helmets with plumes.
My godfather, for whom eating well was the highest expression of French patriotism, had arranged for special access to a terrace overlooking the Champs Elysees. Small though I was, it was with great pride and expectation at seeing the French army that I climbed over a high grill to get to the vantage point.
I later came to understand that the Bastille Day parade was not just any military parade, but the granddaddy of them all, the inspirationpasts right down to May 1 on Red Square.
So, naturally, I had no real choice yesterday but to spurn the special but restricted press stand so that I could take my two little girls, 6 and 11, to see the great parade.
We set out from home on the direct Metro line that should have taken us right to the best Metro station for watching the parade, right in the middle of the Champs Elysees. The normally lightly packed with people as the fabled Tokyo subway. We all emptied out, hundreds of us, at the Champs Elysees Clemenceau stop.
But, at the exit gates, a handful of station guards were turning back the angry holiday crowd. The outer gates up onto the Champs Elysees were locked shut. There were numerous scuffles as passengers tried to slip upstairs anyway. "This is inadmissible," said a distinguished-looking gray-haired man to the station master. "Nobody announced this anywhere."
"The station has already been closed for two hours," said the station master with what seemed to be triumph in his voice. The gray-haired man repeated. "Inadmissible," a word that has no real English equivalent. To the French it is a word of authority meaning something like "so scandalous that not even a bureaucrat could justify it." The station master got the point and snapped, "Just what is your status for saying such a thing?"
By now, my kids were getting bewildered and upset. "Why won't they let us up? Don't they want us to see the parade?" Asked the 11-year-old. Unable to provide a short, logical answer that might satisfy her, I found myself reduced to trying to provide an analysis of the French national character. I could feel that I was myself somehow endangering my original intention of instilling a modicum of French patriotism in my Americanized daughters.
After another Metro trip, we finally managed to get above ground at another part of the Champs Elysees. My heart sank. I hadn't really expected Spahis or English horse guards to show the kids, but, at the very least, there could have been the foreign legion fresh from its triumphs in Zaire.
(Yesterday, Britain was represented only by its tourists, along with others speaking mostly German, Italian or Spanish.)
All we could see was tanks, scout cars, motorized radars, rockets and bridge sections, all painted an unrelieved khaki green. Anyway, I set Martine, the 6-year-old, up on my shoulders piggyback.
The vehicles bore the names of great and small French victories in all the wars since the people of Paris took over the king of France's infamous Bastille Prison on July 14, 1789. By us paraded "Austerlitz," "Bir Hakeim," "El Alamein," "Dunkirk."
Dunkirk? The place on the channel coast where what was left of the British and French armies escaped the European continent from the victorious Nazi tanks. A victory? Maybe not a defeat. But a victory?
Then came "Trafalgar," Trafalgar, where the English destroyed Napoleon Bonaparte's fleet? It's true a French sniper killed the British admiral, Nelson. But a victory?
I could see I had better not try explaining the French military mind to my daughters.
I began fantasizing. One of the members of the French National Assembly has proposed bringing back horse-mounted police to rout the prostitutes who occupy the best-known Paris park, the Bois de Boulogne, at night. I could already imagine the tank in next year's parade triumphantly painted on the turret. "Bois de Boulogne."
I felt a kick in my side. I wasn't dreaming that I was the horse. It was Martine. "Daddy, I wanna get down," said Martine. (The ignominy of it. I had read to her not three days ago, off the back of her French-language box of corn flakes, that her name is derived from Mars, the God of war.)
The troops in all those khaki machines were France's newly reconstituted 27th Alpine division. I remember the Alpine troops from 1939. Called "The Blue Devils," they had dark blue berets and uniforms with ski pants and they carried skis on one shoulder and rifle on the other. It didn't surprise me at all when I heard later that they were the only French troops who beat back the enemy in 1940, the Italians in the French Alps and the Germans in Norway. Those were Alpine troops.
The only thing that seemed to save the day for the kids were the firemen with their red fire engines, black leather jackets and polished helmets. There was even a unit of firemen-frog-men being pulled along in rubber life rafts.
If only the legion had been there. I remember a legion sergeant telling me once. "When we march in Paris on Bastille Day, it's the death of discipline. Women come up and pull you by the arm and say, (C'est mon leginnaire ) and other women come and pull you by the other arm and say, (Non, c'est mon legionnaire .')
Allowing for a bit of legionnaire boasting, the victorious 2nd Foreign Paratroop Regiment, fresh from Kolwezi, would have ravaged the Parisiennes this year. But I had forgotten all about the controversy surrounding Col. Philippe Erulin, the legion commander in Kolwezi who was accused in the middle of the battle of having tortured prisoners in the Algerian war.
"There was not much to see," complained my pre-adolescent daughter.
When I got back to the office, there was French President Valery Giscard'Estaing on television explaining that he didn't invite the legion to march on the Champs Elysses this year because they got to be in the parade last year. Besides, he said, he wanted to show the people of Paris a modern division with all its advanced equipment.
Waiting to shake the president's hand along with the 4,000 other guests a the Bastile Day reception Giscard gave, was Rene Andreiu, the editor of the Communist newspaper L'Humanite, the man who had publicly recalled Col. Erulin's past.
Walking along the Champs Elysees, after the parade. I bought the kids each a flag anyway. There were flags of all nations on sale.
I asked the vendor what was selling best. "A little of everything, but French ones most of all," she said with evident pride.
I persisted. What was selling next best? "Oh, the Americans," she conceded testily.
I bought the kids French flags.