On Bastille Day, Past Glories and a Fretful Future

TOURTOUR, France — Rockets' red glare, bursting in air, lit up faces of awe-struck kids waving candles in paper bags on sticks. Parents stashed wine bottles to ooh and ahh at lights cascading down the old church tower. Fireworks here, up close and personal, are spectacular.

Afterward, this hilltop Provence village drank and danced late into the night. Visitors retrieved cars parked every which way under roadside sycamores, without a glance from the few indulgent cops. The next day, every TV blared the parade in Paris.

The jets, wingtips almost touching, trailed blue, white, red low over the Champs-Elysées. As always, the Foreign Legion Pioneers stole the show: bearded bruisers in buffalo-hide aprons gripping axes, not guns. Since 1831, they have cleared the way for commandos quelling mayhem in far-flung corners of empire.

Emmanuel Macron stood as tall as a short guy can in an open jeep, flanked by the Garde Republicaine in gleaming silver helmets on horses. His honored guest was Angela Merkel, leader of Germany, which invaded France twice in the last century.

Last year's invitee, an American president who wanted his own show of military might at home, missed the point. Troops and tanks are just the backdrop to a family affair that fetes what Charles de Gaulle called une certaine idée de la France.

That certain idea seems secure on Bastille Day, with its echoes of Victor Hugo: “France, France, without you the world would be alone.” But the country so many of us outsiders love and hate with equal passion is fast morphing into something else.

Here in the hardscrabble hills north of Saint-Tropez, people still gather around tables for Sunday lunch, with ingredients fresh from local markets or their backyards. But freak weather — long hot droughts and hard rain — takes an increasing toll. Big box hypermarches run family shops out of business.

Paris is approaching unlivable. “City of Light” evokes a lot of meanings, but none has included red brake lights on exhaust-fuming tour buses in paralyzed traffic, relentless flashes on selfie sticks, or winking lamps on locust hordes of rent-a-bikes and electric scooters.

A city of slow walks to long lunches is something between Disneyland on a bad day and a circle of Inferno Dante didn't imagine. In a small metropolitan area of eight million people, Mayor Anne Hidalgo makes pedestrian areas by closing vital arteries and narrowing lanes.

Work crews block much of what remains to build pharaonic structures for the 2024 Olympics. By one count, 7,300 construction sites snarl traffic, spiking pollution levels. Paris drivers, inching forward at every chance, gridlock main intersections. Even the chaotic Place de la Bastille is slated to be a pedestrian zone.

Plenty of old Paris is left, but the mood is changing fast. Physiognomy and changing times aside, la vie is not so much en rose.

“This place is a nightmare,” Laurent, my friend the script writer, lamented. His five best pals have fled Paris, three to the provinces, one to New York and another to Africa. “There's a new aggressivity, everyone is hustling. Parisians just aren't the same anymore.”

Notre Dame, now boxed up for repairs, will reemerge eventually with its character basically intact. Fabulists evoke terrorism, but authorities blame the usual cause of fire among oaken medieval rafters: someone's errant spark.

More telling are changes - unnoticed by newcomers but glaring to habitués — at such temples of Parisian life as the Brasserie Lipp near Saint-Germain des Prés. Its dark wood panels, mirrors and frescoes are the same, but it is clearly a different place.

Lipp's new menu is a tip-off. When I first ate there in 1977, it read at the top, “A salad is not a meal.” These days, abandoning its gentle hint that tables are not meant for barbarians who eat lightly, it is blunt: “No salad as a meal.”

An American friend asked for an Aperol spritz, now as common as pastis, and the tuxedoed waiter replied, “What? I don't know that.” When enlightened, he sniffed audibly. “This is a classic establishment,” he said, “We don't serve such things.”

He agreed to bring me a vodka tonic, but when I asked for a lime he sniffed again. “We have lemons, monsieur.” I popped out to a neighboring bar where a kindlier waiter gave me a fat green lime, which I placed near his lemon slice. He eyed it warily.

When I began scribbling in a notebook, he shifted to solicitous mode. After some old-style Parisian verbal ping pong, he ended up with an actual smile and asked if we were satisfied with the meal. I said yes, but it was nothing to write home about.

At their worst, Parisians can be world-class buttheads. At their best, I've found no society anywhere more friendly, helpful and cultured. Today, stress and incivility produce more of the former than the latter.

For 2,000 years since Gauls settled on the Seine, Paris has had an enduring homogeneity. Emigres and tourists learned its ways. People from French colonies added flavor and color. Now, with destitute African migrants and refugees from Middle East violence, that is changing fast.

Anti-Semitism, once exaggerated by outsiders, has gone from insidious to overt in tough neighborhoods. Islamic zealots lump all Jews together with extreme Zionists who push Israel to exclusionist excess.

As Bastille Day makes clear, France still holds its own as a world power. Its nuclear-tipped force de frappe is not designed to conquer but to discourage outside threat. Abroad, its agile commando units can do what musclebound Americans can't.

After Libya fell and terrorist groups fled south, French troops quickly liberated Timbuktu and much of the region beyond, supported from West African bases it has maintained since colonial days before 1960.

Four Americans killed on patrol in Niger showed the limits of powerful armed forces in the hit-and-run situations increasingly common in modern warfare. Most often, U.S. forces provide transport and intelligence. Frenchmen do the fighting.

The problem for France is peace at home, not war abroad. Some of those happy people who came together for the Tourtour fireworks have worn yellow vests each Saturday for eight months. They want Macron to assuage public discontent or resign.

Despite health care, free universities and the rest, families struggle as the income gap widens and prices soar. Embattled unions defend what the French call a social contract, which regards workers as more than what Americans call human resource.

The French, as always, are ambivalent about America. But not its president. After the U.S. team won the women's World Cup in Lyon, sports-bar locals joined Americans in chanting, “Fuck Trump.” Many see a similarity in Macron's policies. Like Trump, they say, he is a reverse Robin Hood, stealing from the poor to help the rich.

But if feelings run high, Bastille Day is evidence that French politics eventually work out. When a majority is fed up with presidents, or monarchs, they throw the bums out and hold them to account.