- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

A few thousand Frenchmen and local Francophiles descended upon the Embassy of France to celebrate Bastille Day on Saturday. They were commemorating July 14, 1789, the day the

French people — fed up with feudalism and food shortages — stormed the infamous Bastille prison in Paris, thus starting the bloody revolution that eventually led to democracy (not to mention plenty of guillotined heads).

The mood was a bit lighter 212 years later.

Guests cheerfully stormed the embassy for the free food and abundant wine, champagne and beer, joining fellow patriots and French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang and his wife, Anne, on the holiday that always elicits a great outpouring of national pride.

Invited guests included members of the diplomatic corps such as Irish Ambassador Sean O'Huiginn (who were dropped off at a special entrance). Most of the others were clearly Gallic, and they had to wait patiently in a line that snaked out the embassy gates and extended at one point to the entrance of Georgetown University Hospital on Reservoir Road NW. (It is always difficult to calculate the number of attendees, as the celebration is open to anyone with a French passport.)

As Mr. Bujon de l'Estang noted, "It's always a popular holiday — nothing fancy, very open and very joyful."

The attire ranged from expensive-looking summer dresses and suits from Yves Saint-Laurent, Dior and Louis Feraud to scruffy T-shirts and jeans or shorts. (Many of the shorts-clad were children who'd come with their families.) The relaxed crowd spilled into the yard, where people continued to mingle and drink under a tent and on the lawn.

With everything done up in red, white and blue, one could have mistaken the event for a Fourth of July celebration but with much better food. All traces of the edibles ham and roast beef sandwiches, grapes and an assortment of regional cheeses were devoured by 8 p.m., leaving tables empty but for a few sculptured wax centerpieces. "It's not white chocolate," said one waitress, apparently worried that they'd be eaten.

Indeed, the French are a hungry people.

"Eating in France is very important," guest Marie Carmen Guignard said. "It is a ceremony."

There was also dancing: Odette Ceniceros, 76, kicked up her heels with admirable vigor. She explained later that Bastille Day "means being very French," and Mrs. Ceniceros is that, despite having married an American Air Force surgeon decades ago. She met her husband when she was a can-can dancer in a Paris dance hall, where she had to wear 50-pound skirts or, she added, proudly, nothing at all.

The celebration was about food, wine, and being very French with a requisite nod toward the special bond between the United States and France. Bernard Marie, a Frenchman who is now president of Software World in Chantilly, Va., pointed out that "France is the only power country in the world that has never been at war with the United States."

Before a rousing rendition of the French anthem, "La Marseillaise" which was dutifully followed by "The Star Spangled Banner" the ambassador spoke (in French) to his "fellow citizens" about how the differences between the two countries can serve to strengthen the long-standing alliance between them.

Of course, the French aren't always so enamored with hegemonic American culture, and some guests were happy to point out what they find to be lacking in this comparably infant society. Mrs. Ceniceros said she's found some people unfriendly here. In France, she said, "People talk to each other." Danielle Schwarz, who has been coming to the embassy-sponsored celebration since 1964, said that though she returns to France twice a year, she misses her homeland and its "joie de vivre and spontaneity."

The mood was far more jubilant than wistful or critical, however. No pall was cast over the party, despite the fact that on Friday Paris lost its bid to host the 2008 Olympics to China. "It wasn't a vote against France," Mr. Bujon de l'Estang insisted, "but a vote for Beijing. We are not sore losers."

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