It’s le 14 Juillet or La Fête Nationale today in France though civic celebrations this year, thanks to you know what, will be considerably dialled back. Last year M Macron welcomed world leaders in Paris to a truly splendid display of military might. This year he’ll be honouring the medical workers at the forefront of the battle with coronavirus, but it’ll be a much smaller ceremony at the Place de la Concorde, where the parade normally ends. The planned ceremony will be “reduced to 2,000 participants and about 2,500 guests”, in compliance with the rules of social distancing.
This year the holiday falls on a Tuesday, which on the plus side means keeping the usual bank holiday, but on the minus side is the perfect excuse to make the festivities last four days (using Monday as a bridge day) instead of one. Celebrations also generally mark the beginning of the holiday season when the French start winding down, packing up and heading off on holiday. Many of whom will head south, clogging up the motorways. However, we’ll be happy to see them so long as they boost our local economy.
What exactly are the French celebrating?
La Fête Nationale celebrates the storming of the Bastille, a military fortress and prison, on 14 July, 1789, in a violent uprising that helped usher in the French Revolution. Besides holding gunpowder and other supplies valuable to revolutionaries, the Bastille also symbolized the callous tyranny of the French monarchy, especially King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette.
Built in the 1300s during the Hundred Years’ War against the English, the Bastille was designed to protect the eastern entrance to the city of Paris. The formidable stone building’s massive defenses included 30 metre (100 ft) high walls and a wide moat, with around 100 regular soldiers and 30 Swiss mercenaries standing guard.
As a prison, it held political dissidents (such as the writer and philosopher Voltaire), many of whom were locked away without a trial by order of the king. By 1789, however, it was scheduled for demolition, to be replaced by a public square.
What triggered the Revolution?
Despite inheriting tremendous debts from his predecessor, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette continued to spend extravagantly, even helping the American colonies win their independence from the British. By the late 1780s, France’s government stood on the brink of economic disaster. To make matters worse, widespread crop failures in 1788 brought about a nationwide famine. Bread prices rose so high that, at their peak, the average worker spent about 88 percent of his wages on just that one staple. (I’ve previously written about the French regard for bread)
Unemployment was likewise a problem, which the populace blamed in part on newly reduced customs duties between France and Britain. Following a harsh winter, violent food riots began breaking out across France at bakeries, granaries and other food storage facilities.
In an attempt to resolve the crisis, Louis XVI summoned the long-dormant Estates-General, a national assembly divided by social class into three orders: clergy (First Estate), nobility (Second Estate) and commoners (Third Estate).
Though it represented about 98 percent of the population, the Third Estate could still be outvoted by its two counterparts. As a result of this inequality, its deputies immediately started clamoring for a greater voice. After making no initial headway, they then declared themselves to be a new body called the National Assembly.
Finding the doors to their meeting hall locked on 20 June, 1789, they gathered in a nearby indoor tennis court, where, in defiance of the king, they took an oath – famous thereafter as the Tennis Court Oath – not to separate until the establishment of a new written constitution.
The National Assembly
When many nobles and clergymen crossed over to join the National Assembly, Louis XVI grudgingly gave it his consent. But he also moved several army regiments into Paris and its surrounding areas, leading to fears that he would break up the assembly by force.
Then, on 11 July, the king dismissed the popular and reform-minded Jacques Necker, his only non-noble minister. Protesting crowds poured into Paris’ streets the following day, harassing royalist soldiers so much that they withdrew from the city. Crowds also burned down most of Paris’ hated customs posts, which imposed taxes on goods, and began a frantic search for arms and food.
Unrest continued on the morning of 14 July, when an unruly mob seized roughly 32,000 muskets and some cannons from the Hôtel des Invalides (a military hospital) prior to turning its sights on the large quantity of gunpowder stored in the Bastille.
Storming of the Bastille
Bernard-René de Launay, the governor of the Bastille, watched in dread as a large and growing mob of angry revolutionists surrounded the fortress on 14 July. Upon receiving a demand to surrender, he invited revolutionary delegates inside to negotiate.
Lacking any direct orders from Louis XVI, he purportedly received them warmly and promised not to open fire. Yet as the talks dragged on, the people outside grew restless. Some may have thought their delegates had been imprisoned.
Eventually, a group of men climbed over an outer wall and lowered a drawbridge to the Bastille’s courtyard, allowing the crowd to swarm inside. When men began attempting to lower a second drawbridge, de Launay broke his pledge and ordered his soldiers to shoot. Nearly 100 attackers died in the onslaught and dozens of others were wounded, whereas the royalists lost only one soldier.
The Bastille Is Dismantled
The tide turned later that afternoon, however, when a detachment of mutinous French Guards showed up. Permanently stationed in Paris, the French Guards were known to be sympathetic to the revolutionaries. When they began blasting away with cannons at the Bastille, de Launay, who lacked adequate provisions for a long-term siege, waved the white flag of surrender.
Taken prisoner, he was marched to city hall, where the bloodthirsty crowd separated him from his escort and murdered him before cutting off his head, displaying it on a pike and parading it around the city. A few other royalist soldiers were also butchered, foreshadowing the terrifying bloodshed that would play a large role during and after the French Revolution.
In the aftermath of the storming of the Bastille, the prison fortress was systematically dismantled until almost nothing remained of it. A de facto prisoner from October 1789 onward, Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine a few years later. Marie Antoinette’s beheading followed shortly thereafter.
Where should we celebrate le 14 juillet?
The Paris parade is the largest but many other towns and cities have their own parades, followed by parties and lavish firework displays. However, this year everything will be a little more subdued. Although many lockdown restrictions have been lifted, the ban on mass gatherings has not, and political leaders say gatherings of more than 5,000 people are unlikely to be allowed before September. As usual, we’ll watch our local firework displays from our balcony and probably raise a glass or two of my favourite beverage (champagne) to La France!