LA FÊTE NATIONALE on 14th July is the centrepiece of the Parisian summer. It’s the French National Day and it commemorates the 1790 Fete de la Federation, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. It also marks the start of the French holiday season. In Paris the day starts with the défilé, the parade of military and civilian services, marching down the Champs Elysées to be reviewed by the Président de la République and his army of guests.
Before the défilé gets under way there is an opening ceremony at the end of which comes the opening fly-past by the French Air Force, the Armée de l’Air led by nine Alpha jets of the Patrouille de France, the French aerobatic display team who celebrate their 60th anniversary this year.
Here I have to confess that I’m an aircraft enthusiast and so each year my viewing of the fly-past takes the same form. Half of me is inside watching on the TV and half of me is outside on my balcony watching and recording the aircraft as they fly overhead so close that I can almost reach up and touch them. At least that’s what I’ve done each year for the last fifteen years but this year I was forced into a last-minute change of plan.
With about half an hour to go before the aircraft were due directly overhead with a wonderful sense of timing my next-door neighbours emerged onto their balcony to, rather over-enthusiastically I thought, tuck into a late breakfast. It was quite clear that my plans to record the fly-past free of the clatter of cutlery and minus a running commentary of the event about to unfold was a hopeless cause. What to do?
Not being in the mood for one of those endless arguments that the French seem to enjoy so much I decided to implement Plan B.
My recording position close to home: Photo by julietinparis
I hastily grabbed my sound recorder and a microphone (Nagra LB and Rode NT4), left my apartment and set off up the street to a place close by where I knew I would get an excellent view of the fly-past and from where I could expect to get a good sound recording. From here I could see La Grande Arche de la Défense in one direction and the Arc de Triomphe in the other, the exact flight path of the aircraft. This is a place I pass every day so I know it well. The fact that it’s a bus station and the buses run during La Fête Nationale, and it was full of people, could have been seen as somewhat of a flaw in Plan B but I pressed on undeterred.
I must say, it was well worth it. The view of the aircraft was simply spectacular even though in my hurry to implement Plan B I had left home without my camera.
Défilé aérien d’ouverture – the aircraft fly-past:
Apart from La Patrouille de France who are always good value, the star of the show for me was the appearance of the Airbus A400M, the multi-national four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft designed as a tactical airlifter with strategic capabilities.
For those of you interested in these things the running order is listed below.
As I said, I recorded these sounds from a bus station with lots of people around but I think that has added to the recording rather than detracting from it. For me, the sound of small, innocent children playing happily whilst war machines each costing millions pass overhead has a certain poignancy to it and the sound of a Paris bus starting its engine just ahead of five interceptor fighters passing overhead seems to be a sort of ‘poke in the eye’ to this extravagant display of military muscle.
This year some aircraft from the Luftwaffe were invited to take part in the défilé aérien. The last time German aircraft flew over Paris it was in very different circumstances, which thank goodness are long behind us.
While the aircraft appear at the beginning of the défilé in the Champs Elysées, the helicopter fly-past comes towards the end, some ninety minutes later. I decided not to stay at my bus stop location to record the helicopters, instead, it being a glorious sunny day, I decided to go home and record them from my garden. Well, it’s not actually my garden but it is the garden of my apartment building and I’ve been here so long that it feels as though it’s mine.
It takes much less time for the helicopters to pass but their sounds are none the less dramatic.
Défilé aérien de clôture – the helicopter fly-past:
And here is the helicopter running order:
So that was my aircraft fix for yet another year. I always look forward to it and, despite my balcony drama, it didn’t disappoint.
After a quick lunch I set off again to savour more of La Fête Nationale, this time ”Les Parisiens et les franciliens accueillent leurs soldats”.
After the morning’s pageantry in the Champs Elysées some of the forces that took part in the défilé set up static displays in seven different places in and around Paris. It’s a chance for the public to meet the military face to face. I went to the event at Les Invalides. I went there last year and amongst the displays of military vehicles and hardware I was able to capture the sounds of le Bagad Lann-Bihoué, the very popular French Navy musical ensemble who specialise in playing distinctive Bretonne and Celtic music and a French Army Male Voice Choir. You can hear these sounds here.
This year I came upon another male voice choir, this time from the choir school of the French Navy.
French Navy Male Voice Choir:
These sounds were recorded without the aid of the public address system. The French Navy knob-twiddler-in-chief was clearly out of his depth trying to manage the public address system so, despite the appearance of a couple of blasts of feedback early on, he gave up and retreated to his hutch. Let’s hope he never becomes knob-twiddler-in-chief in a nuclear submarine!
This year’s Fête Nationale came to a wonderful climax with a brilliant late-night concert in the Champs des Mars at the foot of Le Tour Eiffel which I watched on TV followed by an equally brilliant firework display which I also watched on TV but listened to from the balcony of my apartment. Le Tour Eiffel is in a direct line from my apartment balcony and I could get a perfect view of it – if it wasn’t for the houses in between!
ON SATURDAY, THE CROWDS gathered, the rain held off and the Champs Elysées was decked out for La Fête Nationale and the annual defilé, the parade to mark 14th July, the French National Day.
Picture from Wikipedia
While the defilé comprising most branches of the French military and civilian services were parading on the ground, overhead, sixty-six aircraft from the Armée de l’Air, led by the French aerobatic display team, la Patrouille de France, flew directly over my apartment and down the Champs Elysées in perfect formation. From my balcony it seemed that I could almost reach up and touch them. I couldn’t of course, but I was perfectly placed to record their sounds, the sounds that on this day each year become some of the sounds that define Paris.
After the morning parade and fly-pasts in the Champs Elysées, culminating with the now customary parachutists landing with pin-point accuracy in front of the Président de la République, members of the government, diplomats and invited guests, the afternoon was taken over with operation “Les Parisiens et les franciliens accueillent leurs soldats”.
Many of those who took part in the morning’s defilé scattered to various locations in Paris taking their equipment with them. This was a chance for members of the public to meet the French armed forces and to learn at first hand what they do. It was also a wonderful opportunity to crawl all over very expensive things one would never get the chance to even get close to normally.
I spent the afternoon at the Esplanade of Les Invalides. Some of the helicopters that took part in the morning’s fly-past were now parked here along with some other vehicles.
Of course, I was interested in what was on show but I was also working, hunting for sounds and I wasn’t disappointed.
I found these two men from le Bagad Lann-Bihoué, the very popular French Navy musical ensemble who specialise in playing distinctive Bretonne and Celtic music.
Music from La Bagad Lann-Bihoué:
And from the Navy to the Army … and representatives from Le Choeur de l’Armée Francaise, the French Army Choir.
The 14th July has become a fixed point in my calendar. I’m not French but I have learned to enjoy La Fête Nationale and all its sights and sounds.
And finally …
Although the defilé in the Champs Elysées is carried out with meticulous precision things don’t always go to plan. This year, the parachutist’s display at the end of the parade was more spectacular than ever. All of them landed inch perfect and bang on target but unfortunately, one of them was injured on landing and, unable to walk, he had to be carried off to one side. These things happen and François Holland, Président de la République, was quick to walk over to have a word with him. C’est la vie!