An American in Paris: Diplomacy in the era of Freedom Fries

Tanks On Bastille Day, the French celebrate their independence with more military presence than Americans do ... (Puneet Kakkar photo)

Celebrating independence Parisian-style, and visiting Biarritz in search of "normal" France

In the past two weeks, I feel I've really fallen in love with being in Paris. Only now, I can say that I love it not because of the tourist sights, but because somehow it's become a part of what I consider "home." The grocers on the corner now attempt to pronounce my name, people who work with me ask how California politics are faring, and tourists stop me on the street for directions.

July 14, Bastille Day

At around 10 a.m., the streets were closed off to cars and hundreds of people were walking in groups toward the Champs Elysées. Airplanes and helicopters flew above, security guards were posted everywhere, and the military monitored street corners from horseback. This description sounds scary until you add in the kids with their faces painted in red, white, and blue who were lighting fireworks, laughing, and running around, and the French flags hanging from nearly every building I could see.

 military jets
Jets soar overhead during the parade. (PK photo)
When I reached the Champs Elysées — a five-minute walk from where I live — the scene was amazing. Thousands of people lined the street, ready for the annual military parade in honor of Bastille Day, which the French celebrate as their "independence" from the ancién regime. I have never seen anything like this in the United States, since military parades aren't really an integral component of our Independence Day festivities. Within minutes, three fast jets flew above us, leaving red, white, and blue smoke. The parade started: tanks, horsemen, legions, cavalry, and other divisions of the French army began parading down the Champs Elysées to present themselves before Jacques Chirac, the President of the Republic, who was seated in the middle of Place de la Concorde. Given my average height and the hundreds of people standing before me, I decided to take advantage of an accidental "perk" of being an embassy employee. The embassy is conveniently located at the Place de la Concorde, so I had quite the view from my boss's office ­ overlooking the whole review of the parade. The good view and good air conditioning made the first half of Bastille Day perfect.

For the rest of the day, the other interns and I had a picnic on the Champ de Mars, the park that lies before the Eiffel Tower. The government had scheduled a night of fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, but in the meantime I wanted to see how different parts of the city celebrate such a monumental day.

Paris had its share of protests in support of José Bové, a man who was jailed for burning genetically modified foods; celebrations with people playing music, dancing, setting off fireworks; and tourists taking pictures and getting pickpocketed right before my eyes — unfortunately, I couldn't do anything to help. But I did have the opportunity to ask my burning question, "What does Bastille Day mean to you?" of the man who sold me a crêpe outside the Eiffel Tower.

Watching the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower. (Gretchen McKeever photo)
"More money," he joked, but continued that he appreciated it most because it unified everyone in Paris — and everyone in France — as they celebrated a common, shared appreciation for their country. While there were protests and dissenters, he felt they too were nevertheless a part of the "national character" of France. The interesting twist that day was that the firework show was postponed for more than an hour, as some of the unions representing the artisans responsible for the fireworks were on strike protesting cuts in unemployment benefits. I heard the unity á la française as there was both criticism and support of the strike — and of the social movement it represented — among the audience. From this I could see the social solidarity that many citizens feel. Although only about 10 percent of workers participate in unions, there is a cultural bond and relationship that many have with the country's involvement in labor institutions.

Other travels

Now that I've tackled most of Paris, I have been taking weekend trips throughout the country to get a more well rounded perception of France. I realized that up until now I've only been exposed to the capital. You can't understand a country's culture by one city: we would never want nor expect someone to judge American culture just by Washington, D.C. And coming from California, I feel that it's virtually a country in its own right.

One recent weekend I went to the Loire Valley and to Fontainebleau to see historic castles of France. Another weekend I went to Biarritz, a city near the border of Spain and France. Most famous for its beach resort, Biarritz is on the Atlantic coast ­ sunny, beautiful, and serene. Getting out of Paris, and especially to the borders where other countries' cultures mix in, has exposed me to a more three-dimensional understanding of French culture. For instance, Biarritz has the best of both French and Spanish worlds: people speak French with a Spanish accent (and vice versa), there's amazing Spanish food such as paella, and bars and clubs have more of a Spanish accent to them. But the delightful thing is the more relaxed, less intense, non-Paris atmosphere and attitudes. (Go figure, it was the beach.)

How better to learn more about this than by talking with a taxi driver in Biarritz? "Spain is so close sometimes you forget what country you're in," he told me, pointing to the Pyrenees in the distance (the mountains that border the two countries). The driver had lived in both Spain and France, and he said that the Basque region was a great mix of both countries. The fact that one doesn't need to have a passport to go from one EU country to another has only stimulated this "mix."

When another person in the cab mentioned we were working in Paris, the driver started joking about how the attitude "way up there" was very tense. He perceived Paris as a city where everyone was worried about reforms, benefits, politics, work, and money — somewhat like the way rural Americans perceive "city dwellers." He assured us that if there's one thing we should understand about the French, it should be not to look only at Paris. They can be the "exception of the exception." [The "exception" is a common phrase many people use to describe France and how its governmental-political-economic structure is unique among developed countries, as it maintains a more "socialist" system in a capitalistic world setting. From what I could gather, this taxi driver was trying to tell me that Parisians are somehow not what I should typify as "normal" French.

I hope I can figure out what he meant during the many travels I have planned for the few weeks I have left!


sunset over ocean
Sunset in Biarritz — miles away in distance and spirit from the bustle of Paris. (PK photo)