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What makes this Bastille Day different?

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

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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."

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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.