When is Bastille Day (07.05.2018)
Observed in France, its overseas territories, Canada, French Guyana, and most former French colonies
Observed on July 14
Observed by French nationals, French subjects (in French Guyana), French-speaking residents of Quebec, and other former French colonies
Bastille Day, which falls on July 14, marks the origins of the French Republic and celebrates French nationhood. It is observed as a national holiday in France and its overseas territories (departments) as well as former French colonies.
The festival commemorates the day in 1789 when the people of Paris stormed the infamous Bastille Prison and armory, an event popularly understood to be the beginning of the French Revolution. On this day French citizens celebrate liberty, equality, and fraternity, the fundamental principles and rallying cry of their revolution. The day invokes patriotic feelings not unlike those felt by Americans on the Fourth of July, Independence Day in the United States.
The French Revolution was a complex event that stirred controversy within France itself and worldwide. It created the French Republic, divested the king and aristocracy of power, and promised liberty, equality, and fraternity to the French people.
And it attracted imitators beyond France who also hoped to liberate themselves from tyranny. Critics of the revolution, however, argued that it went too far, creating chaos and terror, and there is some truth to that. In the wake of the revolution France, experienced a tumultuous history that included a series of wars, internal conflicts, and experiments in government that ranged from the imperial rule of Napoleon, to restoration of the monarchy, to radical democratic regimes.
With the uneasy rise of the Third Republic in the 1870s, born in French military defeat and scarred by internal violence (some 25,000 died in the suppression of the Paris Commune, a shortlived socialist regime), the government sought to identify a national holiday that could unify the country and encourage its identification with the best features of the French Revolution. Bastille Day, marking one potent event among many during the revolution, was thus elevated to supreme significance as France’s celebration of liberation from the monarchy. Bastille Day has largely transcended its controversial beginnings, been depoliticized, and is now widely embraced in France, its foreign possessions, and former colonies.
Origins and History
In the late 1780s, France suffered under an absolute, corrupt monarchy headed by King Louis XVI (1754–93) and his queen, Marie Antoinette (1755–93). In those days, France had the largest population in Europe and could not feed its people. The nobility and the clergy enjoyed royal patronage and privilege in return for their loyalty to the monarch, while the rest of the country starved. The king and the aristocracy also levied exorbitant taxes, impoverishing the peasants.
During the two years that preceded the French Revolution, the urban working class and rural peasants suffered greatly because of an unusually harsh winter followed by the abysmal harvest of 1788–89.
These events led to a mass geographical displacement.
France was on the verge of bankruptcy and social anarchy; abnormally high prices of food items, notably bread, reduced the lowest strata of society to starvation, the middle class was rendered powerless, and civil society was crumbling under the oppressive and unresponsive regime.
A segment of the upper social strata, composed of high nobility and the clergy, some sincere and others opportunistic, responded to the public insecurity and doubt that resulted. Personalities such as Mirabeau (1749–91), an aristocrat who chose to identify with the peasants, Abbé Sieyes (1748–1836), a clergyman before the revolution, and Talleyrand (1754–1838), a bishop and astute statesman, instigated protests, and the mobs followed them.
Caught between the monarch and the peasants was a growing middle class, the French bourgeoisie.
Their loyalty was divided, but even those who sided with the monarchy eventually became disillusioned with the regime, as few reforms emerged, and liberties, such as free speech, were imperiled. The outbreak of the French Revolution can, thus, be partly attributed to the nobility and clergy behind the scenes who supported the masses. In the vanguard of these protests were the burgeoning bourgeoisie and lesser nobility.
The attack on the Bastille was not spontaneous.
A series of events preceded the assault and precipitated the prison’s fall. On May 5, 1789, when the discontent in civil society had swelled into a huge public outcry, the king convened the Estates-General, which had not met since 1614, to hear the complaints of a country racked by hunger, poor harvests, and political strife. The Estates-General was a representative body, composed of the First Estate (members of the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility), and the Third Estate (commoners). Dissatisfied with the inconclusive outcome of the debates, an assembly of the Third Estate broke away and formed the Constituent National Assembly. Locked out of their chamber as a result of their rebellious move, on June 20, 1789, the deputies of the Third Estate took an oath, known as the Tennis Court Oath (or Oath of the Jeu de Paume) and resolved to remain united until a constitution had been established.
For several months, rumors had circulated that the king was gathering troops near Paris in preparation to suppress the growing dissatisfaction. On July 12, when the news broke out that the king had removed the director-general of finance from his position as minister, street orators railed against the king. The director-general Jacques Necker (1732–1804) was popular with the people for his policy of raising funds by borrowing rather than levying taxes. Outraged, a covert group of Parisian revolutionaries and mutinous troops came together on July 14, 1789, to storm the Bastille and release all seven of its prisoners, four of whom were being held for minor offenses such as forgery.
The state prison, the Bastille, epitomized the despotism of the French monarchy: People guilty of nothing more than disagreeing with the king were sent there to be tortured, while rumors about what occurred there served to silence dissent. It was a massive fortification. Originally a 14th-century castle located at the east end of Paris, it had been converted into a prison. Not only was it infamous for unimaginable cruelties and brutal persecution, but the Bastille also held a stockpile of royal arms and ammunition.
Gaining access to it meant a lethal showdown with its ferocious governor, Marquis de Launay (d. 1789), and his troops. Compounding the challenge was a 10- foot-thick wall and eight soaring towers, each 90 feet high. Ultimately, it was the commoners who paved the way for the rebels’ victory. Infuriated when one of the fortress’s cannons on the rampart was aimed at the street of St. Antoine-a public pathway-the general population assumed that the monarch had aimed a gun at them. In retaliation, the people gathered in the streets, joined the rebels, and attacked.
When the guards realized that their defenses could be breached, they urged Commander de Launay to surrender. Instead he threatened to blow up the fortress if his men did not follow orders. Nonplussed, the soldiers seized the opportunity to surrender to the rebel forces, assured that none of them would be harmed. As the drawbridge was lowered, a mob descended on the prison. De Launay and some of his men were taken to the town hall and murdered, along with the hated officer Flesselles.
The mob slit De Launay’s and Flesselles’s throats, impaled their decapitated heads on poles, and paraded them through the streets of Paris.
Nearly a hundred of the Bastille’s attackers died in the assault, but the once-impregnable fortress of the Bastille was razed to the ground following an order from the National Assembly.
Alarmed, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette recognized the anger and power of the revolutionaries, and the king agreed to dismiss the troops camped near the capital, reinstate Necker, and don the red-white-and-blue cocard, the symbol of the new France. The storming of the Bastille acquired great symbolic significance as the revolution’s baptism in blood and came to represent the French Revolution and the French Republic itself.
The King’s appeal to foreign forces to intervene eventually led to the downfall of the constitutional monarchy. After a subsequent attack on the Tuilleries Palace on August 10, 1792, Louis XVI was taken prisoner, and, following a trial, executed on January 21, 1793. Marie Antoinette was also tried and executed shortly thereafter.
The French Revolution introduced the tricolore (tricolor) as France’s national flag. Blue was the royal color of loyalty; it was the color of the flag flown at Charlemagne’s coronation. Red signified the kingdom, from the red banner of St. Denis, France’s patron saint, and white was the distinctive mark of command. White was the uniform color of the French Guard, while red and blue were worn by the Parisian militia; together they symbolized the new civic army of France. The tricolor ultimately represented, not civil war, but the restored unity of a new order. Indeed, some have argued that the three colors represent the three orders: blue (Third Estate), red (nobility), and white (clergy).The revolution also established the rooster, or traditional Gallic cock, to symbolize the nation’s identity, following its use as an alternative symbol for the French people as opposed to the royal fleur-de-lis, and it is featured on French stamps and coins.
The fall of the Bastille became a symbol of a turning point in France’s and, indeed, the world’s history.
France asserted its identity as a new nation with the Revolution of 1789. On July 14, 1790, a year after the fall of the Bastille, delegates from all parts of the country came to Paris to celebrate and proclaim their allegiance to their new national community.
French jurists, inspired both by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and a long-standing French legalistic tradition, dominated the Estates-General.
This body, which became the National Constituent Assembly after the Tennis Court Oath of June 20, 1789, gave France its first constitution in 1791.
Meanwhile the nation was forced to defend its border as well as its revolution. Following victory against its enemies at the Battle of Valmy, the Republic was proclaimed on September 22, 1792.
Yet in the years that followed France would endure the Terror, a conservative reaction, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), and a complicated history of political triumph and tumult. Fifteen other constitutions and four more republics were to follow the Constitution of 1791, leading to the 1958 Constitution and the Fifth Republic that governs France today.
The ideas generated by the French Revolution-the rights of all people, liberty, equality, fraternity-proved inspiring to French citizens and others worldwide, and Bastille Day continues to represent these ideals and the French nation founded on them.