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No pardons on Bastille Day

While Sarkozy refuses to exercise his grâce présidentielle his invitation to Syria’s president causes anger.

13 July 2008

President Sarkozy has refused any pardons during the Bastille Day celebrations.

It is the second year running he has broken with the tradition, having promised to do so during his election campaign.

Celebrations will be taking place across the country but the presence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at an official parade in Paris has been labeled inappropriate.

The head of the Association of veterans from Camp Idron in central France said French soldiers should not file past the Syrian leader during the march down the Champs Elysées.

Former soldiers who served in a UN peace force in Lebanon said inviting Assad to watch the annual military parade dishonoured the memory of 58 French soldiers who died in the 1983 Drakkar bomb attack in Beirut.

The suicide attack, which also killed 241 US servicemen and six civilians, was carried out by Islamic Jihad – an organization linked to Hezbollah which at the time was believed to be receiving support from Iran and Syria.

"We feel uneasy about this," he said, “especially since some of the soldiers graduated from a military academy named in honour of one of the victims of the Drakkar bombing.

"Drakkar will cast a shadow over July 14," he said.

Sarkozy has invited Assad to join about a dozen leaders at the July 14 celebrations as part of a visit to France that marks a diplomatic comeback for the Syrian leader after years of isolation.

A spokesman for the president has defended the invitation, saying Iran, not Syria, had backed Hezbollah.

"To blame Syria for Drakkar is a historical mistake," said the Elysee official. "There's really no reason for such controversy."

President Jacques Chirac is also boycotting the ceremony. While his office has not stated publicly the reason, it is believed he is angry at the presence of Assad.

Chirac broke off ties with Syria during his presidency and was friends with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri – who was killed by a road bomb in 2005 which was subsequently linked to Syria.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is the guest of honour and 300 peacekeepers will lead the military parade down the Champs Elysées.

Later today Nicolas Sarkozy will confer the title of chevalier de la Legion D'Honneur, one of France's highest honours to former hostage Ingrid Betancourt.

Fête Nationale

FRANCE’S National Holiday – the Fête Nationale - celebrates the first stirrings of the Revolution and the beginning of the end for the Ancien Régime of royal and aristocratic privilege.

This date – that of the storming of the Bastille prison by the people of Paris in 1789 – was adopted by law in 1880.

The Bastille was seen as an emblem of the arbitrary power of the king, who was able to imprison people without trial by issuing lettres de cachet (a signed and sealed command). While the storming has become seen as symbolic of the Revolution, it turned out to be little used by 1789. In a 1911 book historian Louis Madelin said: “The liberated prisoners – four forgers, two madmen and a debauched sadist – were carried out in triumph.”

Presenting the bill to create the national holiday, Henri Martin admitted that France under the monarchy had aspects of “greatness,” and the institution had contributed to building the nation of France, however it had “gained the most unlimited power ever seen in Europe, and had become incapable of wielding it, being, itself, compelled to call on the nation after a century and three-quarters since the last calling of a national assembly.”

Due to excessive public debt the king had called the Etats Généraux – an assembly of representatives of the “three states,” that is the people (essentially the bourgeoisie), the clergy and the nobility, called to advise the king at a time of crisis.

Dissatisfied with the historic system which gave each third equal votes even though the “tiers état” (the commoners) made up the vast majority of the French, the commoners’ representatives declared themselves a National Assembly with exclusive power to agree taxes.

Blocked by the king and shut out of their meeting chamber, they met in an indoor tennis court at Versailles (la Salle du Jeu de Paume) where they agreed on the drawing up of a new constitution. The king ordered the assembly’s dissolution and the annulling of their decisions, sacked a minister whose job was to act as a go-between with them, and gathered soldiers in Paris, including many foreign troops.

This was followed shortly by the storming of the Bastille by a Parisian mob, which Mr Martin called “a little act of war that saved the future of France” and “marked the victory of the new era over the Ancien Régime.” The king was later forced to accept the authority of the National Assembly.

A year later this was followed by a commemorative Fête de la Fédération at the Champ de Mars (today a public garden at the foot of the Eiffel Tower) attended by representatives from all over France “without distinction of age, sex, rank or fortune.”

Mr Martin said: “The Ancien Régime had built the body of France – and we haven’t forgotten that – the Revolution, and that day of July 14, 1790, made, I won’t say its soul – only God makes the soul of France – but it gave France consciousness of itself.

“It revealed France’s soul to itself. It was the most beautiful, most pure day or our history and perhaps of all history. It was that day that consecrated our national unity.” It was unthinkable to choose another day but July 14 for the national holiday, he said.

Photo:Plane flyover on Bastille Day by BenAveling

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