Thousands of Parisians thronged the Champs Elysees on Wednesday to watch the Bastille Day military parade, with soldiers marching past the government officials at Place de la Concorde and fighter planes painting the sky with smoke in France’s colors of blue, white, and red.
Americans also were visible in Paris as the country marked the 1789 storming of the prison at Bastilles and start of the French Revolution, the French equivalent of the Fourth of July.
While some Americans have steered clear of the country since its outspoken disapproval of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the rift has eased over the past year, probably helped by President Bush's joint appearance with President Jacques Chirac at the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in June.
Yet, the political friction wasn't far from visitors' minds.
“I think it’s a reasonable expression of goodwill,” said psychiatrist Randy Buzan, as he stood in line this week to visit the Eiffel Tower and discussed his decision to visit France.
“I don’t hold the French personally accountable, and as it turns out, they were right,” the Denver resident said, referring to French insistence that Saddam Hussein was not developing new weapons of mass destruction.
“In the beginning I thought the Bush administration was probably providing accurate information and in that case I thought the French were not being particularly generous," said Buzan.
"But, as it turns out, our government was lying, and therefore it seems to be that the French were correct all along, and we probably owe the world an apology,” he said.
Buzan, who will spend Bastille Day evening with friends in the south of France, said he was looking forward to discussing the war with the country’s citizens.
While the absence of Saddam’s arsenal has precipitated a change of heart in some, others felt that America’s role in the liberation of France from German occupation in 1944 should have prompted Chirac’s government to back the Bush administration.
“We gave a lot of our countrymen for this county — I think it would’ve been gracious if they would’ve reciprocated,” said Fred Reyno.
“I’m sensitive to that particular issue, being in the Air Force and a Vietnam veteran, but I kinda separate that from my purpose here — I love the Tour de France, I love cycling, and I’m focusing in on that,” said Reyno, who crossed the Atlantic specially for the Tour de France.
“I traveled around the world in the Air Force and when I was in the field service with my company — seeing the different cultures and different traditions I enjoy that particular aspect of it," he said.
"I try to keep it at that, but the political side. ... it’s pretty complicated,” said the 53-year-old veteran who now works as an engineer in San Diego, California.
Expatriates at home in France
On the other end of the spectrum, some expatriates living in France said they never supported the U.S.-led war and feel more at home living among like-minded people.
“I’m happy to be here and not in America,” said Thor Manetta, 17, and studying at the American School in Paris.
“I feel really welcomed by everybody that I meet, and when I tell them I don’t like Bush, they welcome me even more,” he said.
Andrew Cantell, Manetta’s friend from his home town of Bolinas, Calif., agreed, saying, “The American people are different from American politics — you have to say that kind’ve stuff.”
The two students will be watching the Bastille Day firework display with their Parisian friends at Parc du Champs de Mars, which looks onto the Eiffel Tower.
Security bolstered amid terror fears
While expatriates and tourists can enjoy Wednesday’s parade and firework display, the site of the actual Bastille, a fortified royal residence built in the 14th century, and the quintessential symbol of monarchical despotism, is probably Paris’ most famous site that doesn’t exist.
Shortly after the mob of angry revolutionaries raided it on July 14, 1789, using arms stolen from the nearby Hotel des Invalides and symbolically freeing the prison’s seven detainees, it was demolished. Visitors will now find a busy traffic circle on the infamous site.
Despite the absence of the Bastille, there’s no lack of historic monuments and art museums in this capital city. Home to the largest museum in the world, Musée du Louvre,and the well-known Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, like other European cities, has had to bolster its security in the face of international terrorism.
“I had some hesitations about coming here, and other people that I’ve spoken to felt similarly,” said Janice Manis, from Orange County, California.
“But, just seeing in terms of how they’re protecting the various monuments — I’ve been in three different countries (Germany, Austria, and Italy) and they’ve all done a great job, so I find it reassuring,” the 50-year-old law school administrator said.
Having visited the country 30 years ago, she said the French “are pretty much the same now as they were then — some are friendly and some are a little more reserved.”
Asked if she felt that the French judged Americans by the Bush administration’s foreign policies, she said, “Unfortunately yes, and that’s coming from a Democrat.”
'Good friendship' despite rift
Jeff Keacher, a recent college graduate enjoying his second visit to France this year, said, “I think it’s unfortunate we have such a rift because it seems the people, not the government, but the people, have a really good friendship.”
“Everyone here has been really welcoming to us,” said his friend, Paul Webb, also a recent graduate. “We haven’t gotten any anti-American hatred anywhere we’ve gone on our trip,” he added.
The 22-year-old Minnesotans declined to give their opinions on the Iraq war, but said they had to respect France’s decision.
“I noticed in the Luxembourg Gardens they have a picture series that focuses a lot on the American help during World War II -- I think they’re trying to mend the rift in some ways,” said Keacher.
Regardless of their political outlooks, all of the Americans interviewed by MSNBC.com at the Eiffel Tower this week said they appreciated having the opportunity to visit France.
“But I guess one of things I’ve noticed is that if Americans are really pro-war or anti-French they just aren’t going to be coming here,” said Webb, the recent university graduate.
Standing under the nearly 1000-foot structure built for the 1889 World Fair in commemoration of the French Revolution, Manis, the law school administrator said, “I think it’s very important to come and compare and contrast governments and political viewpoints and it gives you a different understanding of what’s going on.”