Vive le France!

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez -

You can weave into one fabric the best tenets of your Catholic faith and your democratic ideals when you visit France — even as you revel in its sights, sounds and tastes. Memories of your trip to France will thus be anything but monochromatic — almost like the French tricolor.

I joined my mother Sonia and two of my sisters in a visit to two of the most visited cities in France: Lourdes, a bastion of the Catholic faith, and Paris — a showcase of all that is beautiful in this world, and a bastion of what is beautiful in a system we call “democracy.”

Today, Bastille Day, I recall the best of my French sojourns and how each trip really underscored that one’s love for life should go hand in hand with one’s love for liberty.

Bastille Day commemorates the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, an uprising against the abuse of power by a long-oppressed people. We fought against the same abuse of power at EDSA in 1986, and so Filipinos have found a template of sorts in the French Revolution — sans the guillotine, of course.

Hall of Mirrors in Versailles Palace.

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 defined liberty as “being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights.”

Equality, on the other hand, was defined as having a law that “must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.”

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More than 200 years after the French Revolution, you could see that most French people, no matter how snooty they are perceived to be, practice the democratic ideals their forebears died for. During my most recent trip, I was told that once you are a resident of France, whether your working papers are in order or not, you get the same medical and dental benefits as any other resident. You are not discriminated against in your hour of need. I was also told by a diplomat that Filipinos who squeal on their fellow Filipinos for being illegal aliens are in fact the ones looked down upon for being snitches.

Filipino domestics working in France earn about 10 euros an hour and are able to earn as much as P100,000 to P150,000 a month. They are prized for being trustworthy — their employers can leave their homes to them without fear that it would be ransacked.

During the late President Cory Aquino’s state visit to France in 1989, just three years after the EDSA Revolution, she was welcomed with the pomp befitting the state visitor that she was, and with the adulation befitting a pop star. People would line the streets outside the places she was visiting to catch a glimpse of her and cheer her on. The reception accorded her at Paris’ City Hall was tumultuous, and there she told the audience, “I would rather be loved by my people than feared.”

The best part about that 1989 visit, which I covered, was that it coincided with Bastille Day, the Bicentennial of the French Republic and the G-7 summit. So on the morning of July 14, as all the heads of state from the powerful G-7 nations (including the US and the UK) were arriving, it was the Philippine flag flying alongside the French tricolor on the Champs Elysees. It was a special day for France, and they had chosen our President to be their state visitor. What a proud moment it was for Filipinos — and for democracy.

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The Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette was beheaded, is of walking distance from the Champs Elysees, the Louvre and the Notre Dame in Paris. An open square surrounded by gurgling fountains, majestic buildings, charming bridges and tree-shaded parks, it isn’t a gory reminder of a bloody episode in French history. I think the French people don’t look at her as a reviled creature, but rather as person in their history who did not know any better (“Let them eat cake.”).

The Louvre, for me, represents the best of France’s modernity: It is a French museum whose major attraction is Italian (the Mona Lisa), and whose latest structural addition, a much-acclaimed work of art as well (The Glass Pyramid), is by an architect of Chinese descent (I.M. Pei).

During my recent trip, I visited the Palace of Versailles in the outskirts of Paris, breathtaking in its beauty. Versailles, home to King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette but actually built by the “Sun King” Louis XIV, had to happen for France to transform itself into what it is now. But the French people had the foresight to preserve even the bastion of their former rulers’ excesses instead of razing it to the ground in a fit of righteous fury. Versailles could have been looted and transformed into military headquarters. Instead, it is preserved like an elaborate fondant cake, a museum as well as a Palace, a tourist attraction as well as an architectural showcase.

My Philippine press card got me into the Versailles for free (entrance is 18 euros) so I owe it to the French government to share my impressions of the palace. Between 1682 and 1789, Ver

The late President Cory Aquino (second from left) with (from left) French Premier Michel Rocard, French president Francois Mitterand and his wife, Danielle, during Aquino’s state visit to France in 1989. AP photos
sailles was the seat of absolute monarchy and became its symbol. Three centuries after its creation, Versailles stands proudly still amid 800 hectares of grounds, 20 kilometers of roads, 200,000 trees, 11 hectares of roofs, 2,153 windows and 67 staircases.

Its focal point, aside from its ornate façade, is its Hall of Mirrors. Only superlatives can best describe the hall, which upon first sight, is already jaw-dropping with its 17 mirror-clad arches that reflect the 17 arcaded windows that overlook the gardens. Each arch contains 21 mirrors and the arches themselves are fixed between marble pilasters. It was here that Antoinette and the future King Louis XVI were married and it was also here, in 1919, the treaty ending World War I was signed.

The room of Marie Antoinette is another must-see, and her canopied bed reminds me so much of Imelda Marcos’ bedroom at Malacañang Palace.

One of the drawing rooms of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting has been transformed into a posh restaurant called Angelina’s, where the hot chocolate and the macarons are to die for.

Visit Versailles because its walls speak.

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 (You may e-mail me at [email protected])









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