What I Did for My First Fête Nationale

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Jul 16, 2009


By Judith Mahoney Pasternak


Café Rendez-vous, Place Denfert Rochereau, Paris, 14 juillet—Beyond the table in front of me, beyond my poached salmon and glass of Sancerre, are camouflage-painted tanks, guns at the ready, rolling down the Avenue du Général Leclerc. Later, when I get back to my Paris home-for-the-summer, a television special will combine patriotic songs (by no means limited to “The Marseillaise”) with film clips of France’s newest contributions to military technology, including the latest in the pilotless, unstaffed bombers called predator drones.


It’s Quatorze Juillet, the Fête Nationale — July 14, France’s National Holiday, which the rest of the world calls Bastille Day. It commemorates the July 14, 1789, storming of the royal prison called the Bastille that marks the start of the French Revolution. Amazingly, the Fête Nationale vastly outdoes the U.S. Fourth of July in celebrating military might — in this case, of course, France’s.


I’m in this café conducting my own celebration. I’m toasting both a different French revolution and what turned out to be the perfect observance of my first Quatorze Juillet.


I’ve never before been in France in mid-July. I’ve celebrated some aspects of Bastille Day in New York, although not the guns and tanks and drones. I got up this morning thinking about how to observe the day without joining the military hoop-la tonight at the Eiffel Tower.


I went for a walk. On it, by sheerest accident, I discovered an almost-hidden monument to the Paris Commune, the world’s first — albeit tragically short-lived — socialist-anarchist municipality. In the spring of 1871, in the wake of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, poor and hungry workers turned Paris into a utopian democracy. (See “My Favorite Revolution: The Musical,” The Indypendent, April 12, 2008.) Two months later, the French army killed it.


The best-known commemoration of the Commune is in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery, where part of the cemetery wall is known as the Mur des Fédérés, the Wall of the Communards. It’s where the Army shot the last 147 defenders of the Commune on May 28, 1871. When I first came to Paris, my mother instructed me to go to the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Venus de Milo — and go to Père Lachaise and see the Mur des Fédérés. (If she had known that Eugène Pottier, the poet who wrote the words to the communist-anarchist anthem, “The Internationale,” was also buried there, she’d have told me to see his tomb as well.)

I did what she told me. I’ve only been back to the Louvre once, but I’ve seen the Mur des Fédérés every time I’ve come to Paris. Once some friends from a world-famous choral group sang “The Internationale” for me there.


This summer, however, since I’ve been living in Paris, I’ve also dropped in occasionally at the Montparnasse Cemetery, the final resting place of two of France’s great political philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I stopped to say hello to them today for Quatorze Juillet, then turned to leave the cemetery. Immediately I came face to face with a map I had never seen before that informed me I was yards away from the “Monument de Fédérés.”


It’s smaller than the wall at Père Lachaise, and the inscription on it is a little worn and hard to see. Also, it wasn’t exactly where the map placed it.


But I finally found it and took a few pictures. Then, because there were no professional singers with me, I lifted my fist in the communist salute and sang one chorus of “The Internationale” solo.


© Judith Mahoney Pasternak, 2009


To read more, visit Judith Mahoney Pasternak’s blog, “The Political Landscape — A Travel Column with Politics.”

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