MAJOR SUCKER for pomp and circumstance here, I'm afraid. July 14th – la fête nationale, the anniversary of the 1789 revolutionary mob breaking into the Bastille, the Paris prison/fortress symbolic of royalist rule – July 14th fou
MAJOR SUCKER for pomp and circumstance here, I'm afraid. July 14th – la fête nationale, the anniversary of the 1789 revolutionary mob breaking into the Bastille, the Paris prison/fortress symbolic of royalist rule – July 14th found me as usual in front of the television at 10 o'clock in the morning gawping at the battalions marching down the Champs Elysées to salute President Chirac.
It's much the same every year, the usual ballet of military parades, endless spruce and spiffed up battalions: sword-swinging cadets from the military academies, platoons from serving units, the jingling harness of the Garde Républicaine, police motor-cycle units, trundling tank transporters and armoured personnel carriers, the Paris Fire Brigade, a fly-past from what the French call l'armée de l'air. There are usually guests: this year, to mark a special September 11th empathy with the United States, some cadets from West Point came at the head of the parade, and among the fire engines was one flown in from New York. A much appreciated gesture.
The climax for spit-and-polish fans comes when the marching units have finished and the armoured car and artillery motorcade is about to start. It's quite dramatic: the bands stop, a hush falls, and in the distance, several blocks down the Champs Elysées, a different music starts, at a slower pace, 60 to the minute for military march experts: it's the Foreign Legion in white képis, scarlet epaulettes and immaculately pressed khaki drill, marching ponderously at what they call the pas de sable, the sand-pace, as though they were stomping determinedly across the Sahara to relieve Fort Zinderneuf.
They bring their own music with them, led by staff-twirling bandmasters. No Frenchman can serve in the Legion's ranks, of course, and we're told that the band – a very professional one – is made up of musicians from Eastern Europe, where the musical training is exacting but jobs non-existent; signing on with the French Foreign Legion is one way out of this impasse.
CORPORAL CONTACT with the Foreign Legion? The nearest I ever came to this was driving along the narrow Route de Narbonne in Mousse les Grieux some years ago. I edged on to the pavement to let a camouflage-green military bus past. 4me Régiment, Légion Etrangère, the destination board said. The fabled Foreign Legion! My eyes strayed upwards for a glimpse of Beau Geste in sun-bleached, sweat-stained képi and neckcloth, or even 'Tough' Luck of the Legion, who with his sidekicks Corporal Trenet and Private Bimberg, noted for expressions like Sacré Bleu! and Nom d'une pipe! at the drop of a képi, enlivened the centre pages of Eagle, that truly great comic from the 50s and 60s.
I look up in vain. No légionnaires. The bus is full of glum women, overdressed and heavily made up. They have the torpid air of the night shift about to clock on. Much to the corporal relief of Fort Zinderneuf, or wherever the 4th Regiment is stationed. Sacré Bleu! There was never anything like this in Eagle.
PRIVATE CONVERSATION between Henry Kissinger and Chairman Mao, I imagine comparing notes on the French and Cultural Revolutions:
Kissinger: Mr Chairman, in 1789 events in France shook the Western world and established new expectations of government and norms of political thought. How would you assess the overall impact of the French Revolution?
Chairman Mao: Mr Secretary of State, I would find that very hard. And premature. Please excuse me: you see, it's much too soon after the event.
GENERAL UNFOLDING of the July 14th parade included a pageant to celebrate a certain bicentenary not unconnected with the competition below, with young people parading irregular shapes of stretched coloured cloth which, when seen from the Presidential dais, eventually formed themselves into a giant gold medal, clasp and ribbon. To give a sense of history that Chairman Mao would have appreciated, each jigsaw piece was accompanied by a small group in the military or civilian dress of the period.
So among others we had poilus from the First World War, cavalrymen from the Crimea, and dating back to 1802, two fearsomely moustached grenadiers of Napoleon's Old Guard, blue tunics, white crossed shoulder-straps, bearskin with red cockade.
At Waterloo Napoleon, out of sorts that day - some say through having dosed himself with laudanum, others because of his piles - neglected to deploy his Old Guard, so they stood about doing nothing while their general, Cambronne, fretted and fumed. At the end of the day the victorious British and Prussians called on the Old Guard, standing firm but inactive while the French army melted away, to surrender.
'Merde!' was the answer from the ranks, or maybe from Cambronne himself, and to this day 'merde' is sometimes referred to as 'le mot de Cambronne', Cambronne's word. To have a swear-word named after you must be almost as great an honour as being awarded the . . . but I mustn't steal Philip Humphries' thunder. Read on!
SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE prize to be won!
Philip Humphries, master Francophile of Bellingham, Wa., USA, has so often won the small, unimpressive prizes offered by this column that in order to give somebody else a look-in he's been asked to set the competition himself. So here goes:
His name is a military rank. He was awarded the rank of Officer in an order created by Napoleon Bonaparte to honor outstanding service to France, but his accomplishment was in the field of art, not the battlefield. Who was this famous American expatriate and what was his award?
First correct answer e-mailed to Chris at the address below wins. A vos claviers!