“It was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen,” President Donald Trump told reporters at the United Nations General Assembly, two months after he witnessed the celebration of Bastille Day on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on July 14. “It was military might,” he added.
“We’re going to have to try to top it,” he apparently joked to French President Emmanuel Macron, who was sitting nearby. But it was no joke. Now he has ordered the Pentagon to prepare his own parade, “like the one in France,” as one senior military official has recounted. However exorbitant the expense, it does indeed look like this might actually take place.
But the French parade has its own history — and many nuances in practice — that can’t simply be transplanted to the US. There are good reasons why the French parade is viewed in Europe and elsewhere differently from the raw displays of military force that Russia, China, and North Korea indulge in. With no similar tradition to draw upon, the US, if it mounts a military parade, risks looking more like one of those authoritarian regimes than like Republican France.
The French parade is not at heart a display of military might
The origins of the French parade are clear enough: The event is held on July 14 every year to commemorate the fall of the Bastille, the great medieval fortress and prison that stood for centuries in Paris as a symbol of royal power. Its inmates included unfortunate people who had been consigned there without trial by the infamous lettres de cachet, sealed orders from the king that were sometimes used by aristocratic families to get rid of inconvenient relatives. (Its most notorious inmate was the Marquis de Sade, imprisoned there on the request of his mother-in-law but transferred to an insane asylum shortly before the Bastille fell.) By July 14, 1789, there were only seven prisoners left, and the Bastille was used mainly to store weapons and ammunition.
Earlier in the year, French King Louis XVI had summoned a long-defunct legislative body, the Estates General, to try to solve the desperate financial situation the government had gotten itself into, not least as a result of excessive spending on backing the American side in the War of Independence. The “Third Estate” — commoners — forced it to turn itself into a National Constituent Assembly on July 9, and the deputies began transforming the country from a royal despotism into a constitutional monarchy. When it was rumored that the king was going to try to crush the assembly by military force, a large crowd stormed the Bastille in order to lay their hands on the weapons inside. The governor of the fortress was killed, and his head cut off and paraded through the streets on a pike.
The storming of the Bastille represented the destruction of a hated symbol of arbitrary royal power. In the years that followed, this event came to be regarded as the true beginning of the French Revolution.
Annual celebrations of Bastille Day soon arose, but when Napoleon came to power, disliking their revolutionary connotations, he transformed the event into a military parade, and for a time it lost its original meaning. All celebrations of Bastille Day, of course, went into abeyance when the traditional monarchy was restored in 1814 following Napoleon’s defeat; observing the anniversary became a kind of underground act of defiance by Republicans during the following decades.
When France was defeated by Germany in the war of 1870-71, and its provinces of Alsace and Lorraine annexed to the newly created German Reich, France became a republic again. But elections led to the domination of the country’s National Assembly by conservative deputies led by a monarchist president, Marshal MacMahon, who had become popular as a general during the war against the Germans. It was only when he arbitrarily dissolved the assembly in 1879, hoping to obtain a decisive monarchist majority, that he aroused serious opposition. The elections brought a sweeping victory for the Republicans, and MacMahon was forced to resign.
Here is truly where the modern commemoration of Bastille Day began. The new liberal and left-wing assembly passed a law mandating it as a public holiday — a celebration of national unity, of democracy, and of citizens’ rights. At the same time, the celebration included a military parade, to symbolize France’s determination to gain revenge over Germany and win back the lost provinces, which it finally did at the end of World War I.
Over the years, the Bastille Day parade has been embraced by the left as well as the right
Since then, except during World War II, the national celebrations and the military parade have always gone together, regardless of the ideological cast of the government. One notable occasion was 1936, when Bastille Day was held shortly after the Popular Front government, led by the socialists and backed by the communists, had been elected. Street parties, dancing, eating (of course, this being France), and a general air of euphoria created wild scenes of joy all across Paris, lasting into the early hours of the morning.
Columns of the new government’s supporters, workers and trade unionists and many others, marched through the streets, many of them shouting slogans, singing revolutionary songs, and raising their arms in clenched-fist salutes. Military units and groups of veterans and war-wounded made their way along the Champs-Élysées amid the general rejoicing.
Indeed, Bastille Day in France has always been about people, not military hardware. It’s a celebration of the French national spirit — of French national determination to uphold the values of the revolution, liberty, equality, and fraternity. Today’s parades haven’t changed in this respect. The point of the event witnessed by Donald Trump was not to demonstrate military prowess but to demonstrate the nation’s loyalty to the idea of France, and the focal point was not massive pieces of military hardware but ordinary soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
The only military vehicles you can see trundling through Paris on Bastille Day are light tanks, armored personnel carriers, and tactical mobile artillery vehicles — and they’re there because they carry people. The combat airplanes flying in formation overhead are there to represent the men and women who serve in the air force, not to demonstrate France’s possession of the latest aerial weapons of destruction.
What’s more, a good deal of care and forethought goes into selecting the military regiments and units that march past the president, and today they often include foreign units to celebrate France’s many alliances and France’s participation in many international institutions. In recent years these have included not only British troops (in 2004, to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, the alliance that bound the two countries together in the face of the growing threat from the Kaiser’s Germany) but also even Germans (in 2007, part of a contingent from every state in the European Union) and a multinational force from many different countries (in 2008, they represented the United Nations).
There have been guest units from Mexico, India, Brazil, and French overseas territories across the world, and from former French colonies in Africa such as Senegal, Mali, and the Ivory Coast. Children’s choirs and other civilian groups have taken part, and in 2014, 250 young dancers made their way down the Champs-Élysées and released doves into the air as a symbol of peace. The rear of the parade is always brought up by the immensely popular Paris firefighting force, technically a unit of the military but hardly a symbol of military strength.
Why the Bastille Day parade isn’t like the military displays of China
All of this is a world away from the massive military parades that began to be held in Soviet Russia to mark the victorious end to World War II and were subsequently imitated by other communist dictatorships across the world. These really are straightforward demonstrations of military might, featuring huge vehicles carrying enormous intercontinental ballistic missiles, the latest tanks and rocket launchers, and all kinds of massive military hardware. Alongside them march ranks and columns of crisply uniformed soldiers in formation, their goose-stepping creating an impression of an unstoppable, mechanized force.
China regularly holds parades of this kind, marking the anniversary of the communist victory at the end of World War II, and, notoriously, North Korea parades its military might on almost any excuse, most recently in an attempt to upstage the Winter Olympics that have just begun south of the Demilitarized Zone.
These shows of force all have their origins in the determination of communist dictators like Stalin or Mao Zedong or Kim Il Sung to threaten and intimidate real or imagined enemies. With the country’s leader taking the salute on the podium, they are also the very concrete expression of the country’s enforced veneration of their person and the regime they oversee.
Is that the kind of parade President Trump is thinking of? Or does he mean what he says when he expresses the wish to follow the example of France? Will his parade feature enormous rocket carriers, tanks, nuclear weapons, and heavy artillery, like North Korea’s, or will it include troop units from African and Latin American countries, delegations from international institutions, children’s choirs, and dancers sending doves of peace into the air, like France’s? I have a hunch where Trump’s preferences lie, but we shall see.
Richard Evans is a British historian of 19th- and 20th-century Europe, and the author of a trilogy on the rise and fall of the Third Reich. His most recent book is The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914. Find him on Twitter @richardevans36.
The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at email@example.com.