France's traditional July 14 military parade cannot be likened to those in North Korea or Russia, two historians told The Connexion, saying it is more a show of French identity than one of pure force.
Both the historians said the parade of fighter jets and other planes, tanks and European and French troops is an allegory of French people defending France's core values, the military being the extension of the people, with no intention to appear aggressive.
It symbolises the military obeying the state.
The link to parades in Russia and North Korea are common remarks from foreigners, said historian Rémi Dalisson, adding that British people in particular have always had trouble understanding how French people celebrate the Revolution.
A few critics have asked for it to be cancelled in recent years but on the whole politicians remain reluctant to do this, aware of the popularity of the parade among French people.
The military parade is part of France’s national day celebrations (Fête Nationale du 14 juillet). Other celebrations, such as fireworks and the traditional bal des pompiers, are held around the country.
“The military parade is the image of France celebrating itself,” said Christian Benoît, a military historian and a retired member of the French army who joined the parade in 1970, 1971 and 1973.
The spectacle is one of several remaining symbols that were chosen in 1880 to bring the population together around a list of core values that define France.
July 14 was chosen without a specific year mentioned to appease both monarchists and republicans.
Members of the monarchist movement wanted to celebrate the 1789 storming of the Bastille prison, while republicans wanted to acknowledge the date of the first anniversary of the French Revolution in 1790.
The parade was meant to show the military power accepting the French Republic, an allegory of the army’s obedience to civil power.
“The French army represents the nation,” said Mr Benoît.
Mr Dalisson, who said that the “parade has both philosophical and patriotic merits”, has evolved over the years, changing with French society.
He referred to the parade of 1919 when colonial troops marched alongside inland troops, a symbol meant as both a recognition of their participation in France’s victory and the allusion of the country's widespread territorial grandeur.
Similar cases can be made in post-WWII parades when members of the Resistance were asked to parade alongside soldiers, or the parade of 1994 when a German tank was driven along the Champs Elysées, or the 2020 edition when nurses and healthcare workers joined in recognition of their work during the Covid pandemic.
This year’s parade has the theme of “share the flame”, a reference to Paris hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics and also France’s resistance during WWII, the French Ministry of Armed Forces stated.
President Emmanuel Macron also invited NATO countries Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in a message of solidarity against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The parade is also an occasion for France to display military and technological progress, with today’s edition hosting a drone and France’s newest Jaguar tank for the first time.
Call for cancellation
But some politicians and French people have called for the military parade to end and be replaced with cultural celebrations.
A change.org asking for its cancellation has so far gathered over 2,800 signatures with the goal of reaching 5,000. The petition was submitted by Alain Refalo, a primary school teacher, who published an op-ed about his views in French newspaper Mediapart.
Eva Joly, a member of the French green party, Europe-Ecologie-Les-Verts Eva, was the first politician to openly ask for the military parade to be cancelled in 2011, saying she had “dreamt of a parade with children, students and the elderly marching peacefully on the streets”.
Her comments triggered a controversy among conservatives. Philippe Poutou, a far-left politician with several presidential campaign bids, was the only notable politician to express similar views in 2017.
The Connexion sent more than 50 requests to members of the left-wing Nupes coalition to ask about their position on the subject.
Only Solène Bjornson-Langen the Parti communiste français replied to say that the party’s leader, Fabien Roussel, did not wish to express an opinion on the matter as it was too divisive.
More than 59% of French people were against cancelling the military parade, while 29% said they were in favour, according to a 2013 poll* by French news outlet BFMTV.
Mr Benoît said he does not like the latest military parades, which have felt closer to a celebration of the president than a celebration of France itself, adding he wished for a return to pure military fashion without parachutists, riders and musicians.
Mr Dalisson said more lessons on the meaning behind the celebrations of the Fête Nationale should be taught to lessen confusion about its original message.
The parade also serves as an illusion of France being still a powerful nation, said Mr Dalisson.
“Cancelling the military parade would mean accepting that the dream of France being a powerful nation is no more,” said Mr Dalisson.
Poll carried out by CSA for BFMTV between July 9 and July 10, 2013 on 987 residents in France aged above 18.