Tanks arrived in Washington this week, ahead of the July 4 parade that President Trump has dubbed a “Salute to America.” He’s boasted about putting on such an event since he attended the 2017 Bastille Day celebration in Paris, which he called “one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen” — appreciating, in particular, its “military might.”
Though last year he failed to execute his plans to match, or explicitly “top,” France’s parade, he’s finally getting what he wants.
But Trump’s comments about his aims for the event — “showing to the American people, among other things, the strongest and most advanced Military anywhere in the World,” as he put it on Twitter — reveal that he fundamentally missed the point of Bastille Day. Enchanted by the tanks and flyovers, he overlooked other aspects of the French celebration that make it quite different in tone and tenor from the displays of martial force put on by autocratic regimes like Russia and North Korea, whose garish displays he now risks echoing.
A bit of history reveals the complexity of France’s Bastille Day fete — and clarifies how the military fits into the picture of what’s essentially a celebration of French national identity. Bastille Day, of course, marks the 1789 fall of the notorious prison that for centuries symbolized royal authority, and which served as home to many of the king’s unlucky targets, often relatives whom the monarchy deemed inconvenient. The storming of the Bastille is widely considered to have ignited the French Revolution. As the historian Richard Evans explained in Vox last year, tracing the history of the Bastille Day parade, pro-Republican French organized annual commemorations in the years that followed the revolution. When Napoleon seized power in a 1799 coup, he repackaged the event as a military parade. Then, after his fall in 1814, the restored monarchy did away with the celebration altogether, pushing it underground, and it became a sort of act of Republican dissent.
What’s more, the contemporary parade celebrates not just the fall of the Bastille but the sweeping, anti-monarchist victory that followed a century later, in the crucial 1880 elections. The left-wing National Assembly that emerged from that vote declared July 14 a national holiday to honor citizens’ empowerment; a military side of the parade was revived to showcase France’s pledge to regain the territories it lost to Germany in 1871.
So, yes, echoing that past, France’s parade today features elite military regiments. But the event as a whole is more about citizenship and unity than about showing the world the country’s military power — Trump’s vision of what his own parade would project. Moreover, the military element has deep historic roots, unlike Trump’s concocted show of force, even if its meaning has shifted over time.
France’s annual event has a decidedly international flavor that Trump would be hard-pressed to embrace. It has included troops from around the world, and not only from French territories or former colonies but also India, Mexico, Singapore and Japan — plus delegations from international organizations, including the United Nations. French soldiers have in past years brandished the European Union flag, honoring allies and advertising a commitment to international institutions. It’s about France, but also about its role in the world. And it’s meant to proudly champion the values of the liberal international order on which Emmanuel Macron has staked his presidency, and which Trump has so brazenly sought to destroy.
Some have drawn parallels between the 41-year-old French president and his 73-year-old American counterpart: Both campaigned as political disrupters, both love the pomp of the presidency, and both share an evident disdain for the media. But Macron, a staunch defender of the European project, has denounced Trump’s “America First” nationalism as a “betrayal of patriotism”; at last year’s Armistice Day celebration, Macron said, “By saying ‘Our interests first. Who cares about the others?’ we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great, and what is essential: its moral values.”
Those ideals, against which Trump has declared war, are central to the parade that runs along the famed Champs Elysees avenue every year in Paris. Bastille Day, in roughly its current form, has taken place annually since 1880, independent of politics or partisanship; Trump’s July 4 equivalent would mark the first such American military parade since 1991, which was held to celebrate the U.S. victory in the Persian Gulf War. And Trump appears to view it as yet another campaign rally — this time with a hard militaristic edge — that glorifies his own presidency, not as a celebratory tribute to those broader American values he often emphatically disregards.
Bastille Day was Trump’s inspiration, but he seems to have confused that event with the Soviet-style military parades now parroted by authoritarian leaders from China to North Korea. His objective isn’t to celebrate the U.S. presence on the world stage, tip a hat to allies and celebrate the nation’s rich democratic history. Rather, it’s to show off a “new” America unencumbered by what he sees as a bygone commitment to the international order and the civic values it represents. Trump may have watched the French parade, but he failed to look past its shiny military surface.