Life in Deepest France: Bastille Day

By MICHAEL MILLS  |  July 16, 2002 at 4:18 PM
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SAVIGNAC-DE-MIREMONT, France, July 16 (UPI) -- Sunday France celebrated its national day -- the 14th of July -- or, as Americans like to call it, Bastille Day. It was as usual the excuse for fireworks parties and dancing in the streets all over France.

No one in France actually calls it Bastille Day. The fall of the Bastille, which had been a notorious Paris prison, was in itself no great shakes when it happened in 1789. It was just part of the ongoing turmoil which had reigned in the capital for several weeks, and about which King Louis XVI had managed to do nothing.

He preferred to recline at his palace at Versailles, applauding gaily the theatrical antics of his massively unpopular queen, Marie-Antoinette. She was much given to amateur dramatics, usually starring herself as an Arcadian shepherdess, with live sheep on the stage, being wooed by a succession of comely young shepherds.

Meanwhile the police commanders kept sending desperate messages from Paris to the king, asking for orders. Should they open fire on the rioters, march them to Versailles in chains, stay in their barracks and do nothing, or what? Oh, and if it came to the crunch, a few reinforcements might come in handy, too.

The aristocratic officers of the king's general staff were a feeble lot, who reckoned their best bet was to take their lead from the top and, like the king, did nothing. And so, because no one was willing to tell the Paris police what to do, they received no orders at all and stayed put in their barracks.

Meanwhile, the rampaging outside grew steadily worse. The poor and the hungry -- and there were plenty of them in late eighteenth-century Paris -- felt they had nothing to lose. And they realized that the police and the army were doing nothing to stop them.

The soldiers at the Bastille garrison had a hard time of it. Realizing that their ancient bastion was a likely target for rampaging rioters, they didn't just ask for orders. They could see the advancing mob, and sent an urgent request for reinforcements. And they got no reply.

Sure enough, the crowd starting beating at the gates. So the garrison retired inside and closed all the entrances including the main drawbridge. But after some attempts at resistance, the soldiers saw they didn't have a hope. So they bypassed their own commander, who had in any case caved in, panic-struck, and negotiated their own surrender.

When the rioters finally stormed in, more or less by mistake and after a series of blunders and misunderstandings on both sides, they found there were only seven prisoners for them to release in triumph. One was a bewildered Irishman down on his luck, incarcerated some months earlier for not paying his debts. He spoke almost no French, had gone quietly mad during his stay, and no idea what was going on. His liberators ended up prodding him out across the drawbridge, from where he disappeared down the street and into the bottomless well of folk history.

Nowadays, apart from fireworks and street parties, the main event is a huge military parade down the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Spice was added on Sunday by a young man at the front of the crowd waiting for president Jacques Chirac to ride by the Arc de Triomphe in a military jeep.

As the president waved and smiled, the man opened his guitar-case and took out a .22-caliber rifle. A quick-witted bystander named Mohammed Chelilli grabbed the barrel and pointed it up in the air, while others immobilized the man. Two shots went off, harmlessly, and within seconds the man had been wrestled to his knees by members of the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité, the tough CRS police brigade.

The assassination attempt was all over our television screens that evening. Against footage of Jacques Chirac waving and smiling at the crowds from his military jeep, we could clearly hear the two sharp rifle cracks. But the president, obviously not: at least you could see that he didn't turn a hair, any more than the military men around him. But minutes later, as he disembarked from the jeep, his diminutive interior minister, Hungarian-born Nicolas Sarkozy, scuttled up to whisper in his ear.

Sarkozy then scooted off to his headquarters in the Place Beauveau and summoned the CRS chief. Minutes later again, he was back on the presidential scene giving details of the botched attempt to the president's wife, Bernadette.

The would-be assassin, meanwhile, was under lock and key at CRS headquarters. From there, deemed to be "mentally unstable", he was transferred to a police prison hospital, where he awaits further proceedings.

He turns out to be a 25-year-old from Paris, described by his neighbors as "mild-mannered" and "sans problème." He was a candidate at the last local municipal elections, standing on the extreme right-wing ticket of Bruno Mégret's National Republican Movement, a breakaway faction of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front party.

Even as I write, the security forces are being grilled as to quite how someone could get as close to the president as the front row behind the police barriers lining his route, carrying such a classic weapon -- concealed as a guitar case.

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