What makes this Bastille Day different?

A resurgence of Firemen's Balls, and spotlights on Sarkozy, Johnny Hallyday, and Indian troops.

By , Staff writer

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    French President Nicolas Sarkozy gestures to spectators with French Army Chief of Staff Jean-Louis Georgelin as they drive down the Champs Elysees Avenue in Paris during the Bastille Day military parade Tuesday.
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Bastille Day brought clear skies and unusually clear streets around Paris as the nation celebrated its famed revolution with a military parade (dating to World War I) down the Champs-Élysées. It's traditional for French allies to be invited to participate. This year, 374 red-tufted members of India's Maratha Army regiment marched from the Arc de Triomphe past guest of honor Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister.

July 14, France's fête nationale, is the No. 1 state holiday – inspired by the storming of Paris prison castle Bastille in 1789 that abolished aristocratic privileges, and three years later led to the toppling of the monarchy. The holiday dates to 1880.

In much of France now it is a feel-good day: go outdoors, get together, stroll. More than most holidays, the French shut off the world. The Bastille Opera house offers a free performance. This year, it's a work by German Anselm Kiefer.

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Some 700,000 are gathering this evening at the Champ de Mars, adjacent to the Eiffel Tower, where iconic 1960s rocker Johnny Hallyday, a sort of French Elvis and friend of President Sarkozy, will play. (Mr. Hallyday's appeal is egalitarian; he's liked by older communists and conservatives alike.) Afterward, the night will be lit up with fireworks celebrating the 120th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower.

What's it all mean?

"It's a great day for the French," says Emile Assan, a Paris businessman. "It's the revolution. We attacked the jail, liberated the prisoners, and got rid of the king."

Nancy Li, an American expat, says July 14 commemorates "opposition positions. French express themselves in elections by voting against what they don't like. That's its spirit."

Pascal Gilbert, sunglasses atop his head, and who, like many French, came from out of town with his wife to meet friends and see the fireworks, sees July 14 as "basically a great opportunity for us to get together, to celebrate, to have a party. I don't think we focus on the history anymore."

Young Gwenael Bourgeon and his brother Lucas, from Drome in southern France, argue when prompted by parents that July 14 is important because "if the Bastille wasn't taken we'd still be under a king."

Firemen's Balls and car fires

In Paris, the evening before marked a resurgence of "Firemen's Balls" – parties at fire stations around the city – where Parisians that normally wouldn't, circulate with each other. Bands this year played Michael Jackson songs.

But in Paris's suburbs, the evening before marked a resurgence of fires started by youth, and rioting in the often minority neighborhoods, in an atmosphere that seems to be deteriorating in recent months. Le Monde reports 312 cars set on fire, and 13 police wounded, after a string of incidents, one including a 21-year-old Algerian who died in police custody.

Let's celebrate me, Sarkozy

The balls and the riots coincided with an evening on French television with Mr. Sarkozy. An admiring interview with the president was followed by an admiring documentary, including interviews with European leaders about Sarkozy. (German chancellor Angela Merkel: Sarkozy thinks she is a "little too slow"; she thinks he is "a little too fast").

Critics said the programs were proof positive that Sarkozy cravenly controls the French news media more than former President Charles de Gaulle did. Socialist spokesman Benoit Hamon called it a "hagiography worthy of a banana republic.… Democratic debate was totally abandoned in favor of … political propaganda," in a Times of London blog by Charles Bremner.

In the days leading up to July 14, Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe also seemed to feel Sarkozy moved a little too fast.

The city planned large fireworks for the 120th. But Sarkozy's office presented the Hallyday concert as a fait accompli. French media described a federal-city catfight over who would pay for damages to the lawn. A piece in Le Parisian today indicates Sarkozy's singer-friend's "token" payment to cover damages would come from the $750,000 he'll reportedly be paid for the concert. [Editor's note: Johnny Hallyday will reportedly earn $750,000 for the concert. That's not how much the damages to the lawn would cost.]

It's all much more than the cluster of prisoners liberated at the Bastille might have imagined. But that's Paris.

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