“Each man has two homelands; his own…and France.”
~ President Thomas Jefferson
PARIS — The golden dome of Les Invalides shone majestically in the summer sun. Tricolor French flags bravely waved in the breeze.
Before me, in Place de La Concorde, where poor king Louis XVI lost his head to Dr. Guillotine’s supposedly painless invention, was a huge reviewing stand filled with hundreds of the great and good of official France – known in France as “les grandes chapeaux.”
Down the flag-lined Champs Elysee comes the martial rumble of massed drums and bugle calls. The 1st Regiment of the Republican Guard marches up and stands to attention. President Nicolas Sarkozy and his entourage of generals and officials arrive only meters from where I stood in the press box.
Monsieur le president took the salute of the regiment, bowed to its battle standard that harks back to the days of the French Revolution, while massed bands played “La Marseillaise,” France’s immensely moving national anthem, known originally during the Revolution, as “the war song of the Army of the Rhine.”
Only a man with a heart of stone could fail to be moved by this splendid hymn to the majesty, triumph and tragedies of France: “citizens, form your battalions,” we sang, “the day of glory has arrived.”
“La Marseillaise” was the rallying song of the Revolution’s amateur citizen soldiers who by a near miracle managed to gloriously defeat the professional armies of Europe’s autocracies — but then become the tool of the greatest and most bloody autocrat of all, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Unit after unit marched before us: infantry of the line, cadets from the prestigious Saint Cyr Academy and from the Polytechnique military academy which secretly built France’s first nuclear weapon. Elite Marine infantry and armor, Alpine soldiers in white uniforms and huge berets known as “tartes.” Units from France’s Pacific possessions perform a rousing war dance for us.
Then, armored fighting vehicles, heavy tanks and artillery. Overhead, roared flights of sleek Mirage and Rafale fighters, transports, trainers and attack helicopters. Three aircraft left a wide tricolor rail of red, white and blue smoke.
The highlight of Bastille Day is, of course, the march of the renowned Foreign Legion, at a famously slower pace than the regular army. The Legionnaires were led by a score of pioneers — huge, fierce bearded men in leather aprons with axes over their shoulders.
The Legionnaires chanted their famous battle song that recalls bloody encounters from Mexico, to North Africa, to Indochina. Legionnaires can be a frightening bunch: I’ve hoisted many a drink with them. They proudly show their tattoo, “March or die.” One never knows if they are about to buy you a drink, or kill you on the spot. France loves her storied Legion; alas, there are only about 7,000 left.
France has been almost constantly at war since September, 1939. Her army was crushed in May 1940 by a revolutionary new, far superior German military technology and doctrine — unlike the United States whose military was defeated by the inferior technology but superior morale and élan of the Vietnamese.
Today, French military units are fighting in Libya, Afghanistan, and Ivory Coast. French troops and air units are stationed in Djibouti, monitoring the Red Sea; in a new base in Abu Dhabi, giving France a say in the affairs of Arabia; parts of West Africa, the French Pacific, Chad and, of course, units assigned to NATO.
Like the United States, France’s foreign policy has become increasingly militarized at a time when its armed forces are strained to the limit and severe budget cuts impend.
As one French general says, “we are punching above our weight.” A French admiral amazed me one night over dinner by telling me that France’s total military budget was smaller than that of the US Navy.
France is also in close consultation with Washington over the seething uprising in Syria and turbulence in Lebanon. Both used to be French colonies and are regarded by Paris as within its sphere of influence. Both Washington and Paris are bent on overthrowing Syria’s Asad regime, but they are uncertain as to which group to install in power once their plans for regime change succeeds.
This year’s Bastille Day was marked by tragic loss. The previous day, five French soldiers were killed in Afghanistan and another four seriously wounded.
Their deaths cast a pall over the festivities and brought renewed calls from the public for France to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan before the 2014 final pullout date.
Meanwhile, France has its hands full in Libya. Its sole aircraft carrier is launching constant air strikes against Col. Ghadaffi’s beleaguered forces. My sources tell me French special forces and the Legion are covertly operating in Libya from bases in neighboring Chad.
Though they won’t say so publicly, French military planners are increasingly worried that they may get stuck in a long-lasting, confused struggle in Libya that will bleed their budgets and wear out equipment. But the war still remains popular among the public and politicians, for whom Ghadaffi remains a prime hate figure.
To end this memorable Bastille Day, the massed heavy cavalry of the Republican Guard, their shiny helmets with long horsehair plumes, thundered down the Champs Elysee. Their mounted drummers and buglers produced a splendid fanfare of military music.
It was magnificent.
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.