PARIS – Bastille Day, the French national holiday, was glorious this year. The military parade, dominated by the celebration of “victory” in Mali and the joint participation of African and United Nations troops, had the perfection of a gracious, albeit muscular, ballet.
The classical concert that preceded the magisterial fireworks that ended the day was the closest thing to a French version of the Proms in London, mixing light classical and popular songs. The Eiffel Tower imbued the evening with its magic. Paris, in case anyone had any lingering doubts, remains the capital of the world – or so it seemed for a night.
The melancholia that began to seize France many years ago was all but forgotten. The celebration of the glory of the past, mixed with popular English songs of the present, seemed to indicate renewed national confidence. What was the meaning of this moment of grace? Was it purely the product of a collective delusion, an emotional Potemkin village of sorts, encouraged, if not conceived, by the authorities to restore some level of self-assurance among France’s depressed citizens?
Even if the positive emotions remain only fleeting (as seems most likely), they were real and palpable. The French seemed to be in the mood to celebrate. Of course, it could simply have been the weather; a gorgeous summer has finally settled in after a miserable spring.
But it might also have been one of those natural turning points, a collective and spontaneous decision to say: “Enough of depression, let’s move on.” We French may not be what we used to be, the celebrants seemed to be saying, but we are still much more than people think we are. We have a great revolutionary past that still conveys universal values – liberty, equality, fraternity – and an army that, as in Mali, continues to make a difference in the world.
One can draw two lessons from this collective form of escapism. The first is that, beyond the many layers of depression and distrust in France, there is potential for a new and collective departure. This would require, of course, less cynical political elites who can transcend their petty ambitions and divisions for the sake of the country.
The second lesson, even more obvious, is that reality cannot be changed with a simple public spectacle. France is not Imperial Rome, where panem et circenses made a fundamental difference. It is a weakened democracy mired in an economic and social crisis so deep that it verges on becoming an identity crisis.
The proof was provided by a third traditional event on Bastille Day, between the morning’s military parade and the evening’s music and fireworks: President François Hollande’s speech to the nation, which took the form of an interview with two prominent journalists. He, too, was in a reassuring mood.
According to Hollande, the economic upturn – la reprise – had just started, and hope was around the corner. His tone and message had changed. He was no longer the “normal man” of his election campaign and tenure until now; instead, he tried to present himself, like his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, as a superhero.
Of course, given his personality and low public-approval ratings, his address was the least convincing event of the day. Who could have said with certainty that the economic upturn announced by Hollande was real rather than aspirational? Beyond his message’s wishful thinking, the public’s reaction to the messenger was a mixture of disbelief and indifference.
Seeing the behavior of friends, all French, listening with me to Hollande, I was reminded of another moment. It was December 31, 1989, and I was in the Soviet Union. I had found myself in a restaurant in the old city of Suzdal, listening to President Mikhail Gorbachev’s “New Year wishes.”
I was moved: The man who symbolized glasnost and perestroika, who had allowed the peaceful emancipation of most of Eastern and Central Europe, was speaking. But I was alone in paying attention to him. The restaurant’s customers, like my French friends now, could not have cared less. Their president had become background noise.
Has Hollande become, in this sense, a French Gorbachev? For the left and the Greens, he is close to being a traitor. These voters chose him a year ago not only because he was not Sarkozy, but because he incarnated the values of the true left, even if his centrist moderation seemed a bad omen. Voters of the center or even the center-right are disappointed, too, by their president’s lack of charisma, if not sheer incompetence.
After a year of Hollande, France is witnessing a fundamental political revolution. During the half-century of the Fifth Republic, a bipartisan system of left and right has traditionally prevailed. But now France is becoming a country dominated by a “tripartite system” of more or less equal strength: the left, the right, and the extreme right.
If France wants to capitalize on the positive emotions of Bastille Day, it needs much more responsible elites, ready to unite in the fight against unemployment and its causes (lack of competitiveness and labor-market rigidity) and consequences (the rise of populist, non-republican forces). What Bastille Day revealed, even briefly and superficially, is that the potential to unite France exists. But doing so requires more than shallow promises.