Talkin’ bout a revolution

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!


It’s la Fête nationale today!

In the English speaking world it’s called Bastille Day but here it’s known simply as le 14 juillet. The French national holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789, a pivotal moment in the French Revolution. What began as an angry mob of anti-monarchists looking for ammunition against royal authoritarianism turned into an enduring symbol of that revolution and today’s national celebration of the French tripartite motto liberté, égalité et fraternité. Celebrations, including firework displays, are typically held throughout France and it heralds the start of the month-long French holidays.

President Macron will be hosting the oldest and largest regular military parade – much envied by Trump who was present last year –  this morning on the Champs Elysees in Paris which is always worth watching, if only on the television. I assume my invite for this year’s celebrations got lost in the post!


Holiday photos: day 12

Vive la Revolution! We celebrated Bastille Day in Bayonne, a city we’d only previously visited. The weekend changed all of that as we happily pottered around the Old Town, the cathedral, the market and along the banks of the Adour and Neve rivers. As usual I was snapping away at all the buildings.

It had rained the night before and the day was warm and muggy which necessitated quite a bit of refuelling as we ambled along the cobbled streets of the Old Town. We were now in the Basque country so there were bars, cafes and restaurants a plenty. I was tempted by some octopus which I begrudgingly shared with my beloved. Don’t you just hate it when someone says they’re not hungry and then proceeds to eat your lunch?

Late afternoon we tottered back to the hotel to put our feet up and enjoy the complimentary aperos and nibbles, followed by the magnificent televised concert and firework dusplay from Paris. On the hotel terrace we enjoyed the local, and more modest than Paris, firework display though our thoughts were with the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice two years ago.  Vive la France!

Summer celebrations

My recent regime of hill climbing is proving more difficult than anticipated. With the exception of Col de Vence and L’Ara – two climbs with which I’m most familiar – my three consecutive ascents of other hills are proving to be more slow, slower and slowest. The exact reverse of what I’m supposed to achieve. I am of course persisting but may well have to seek advice from my cycling coach once he returns from his cycling trip from Verbier to St Tropez. Yes, he’s put together a challenging ride for a small group of American clients, staying in 5-star luxury en-route. These types of trips appear to be very popular with north Americans so he’s hoping it might lead to further business.

It’s Saturday, so we’re riding with one of the teenagers and our friends who have a tandem – never fancied giving that a go. In theory, the teenager can’t ride during the week unless accompanied by his older brother. However, we do know that he’s been out most days, generally on his own. We’re perpetuating the myth, to prevent his mother from worrying, by taking him out with us at the week ends. We’ve broken the “news” to his Dad whom we chatted to on Skype yesterday, en route back home after successfully racing on the Asian circuit. I do hope, despite his hectic race schedule, that he’s going to be home for his younger son’s first bike race.

This week the temperature has really ratcheted up a notch, indeed it’s been almost sultry. I like to get up and out on the bike early to profit from the slightly cooler air and find myself choosing, wherever possible, shaded routes. I still haven’t resolved the hot feet problem but I do find improved hydration and circulation by wearing compression socks helps. I should add that the socks are only worn indoors.  The last two days, it’s gotten quite windy in the afternoons. However, it’s not been a cooling sea breeze, no it’s been a hot Saharan wind. We don’t have air conditioning, I open the windows front and back and the flow of air keeps the place cool. Yesterday, the wind was blowing dust and debris onto my recently washed and cleaned floors, so I shut the windows which unfortunately made the flat feel like a sauna.

Yesterday evening, Bastille Day celebrations kicked off down on the specially closed-to-traffic sea front, animated at regular intervals by live bands and DJs playing different types of music. The whole place was teeming ensuring a bumper evening for the local restaurants though equally a large number brought their own and had a picnic on the beach. As usual, there was a splendid firework display. These types of festivities will continue all week end long up and down the coast. While sound carries a long way on still summer evenings we’re just far enough away not to hear anything.

This week end is the traditional start of the French summer holidays meaning we can look forward to a bumper crop of free entertainment. When I say “free” I mean there’s no charge for entry. As local taxpayers we do indeed pay for the entertainment, but it’s a small price to pay in order to maintain the coast’s biggest source of income – tourism. According to the local newspaper, we’re heading for a bumper season with bookings well up on previous years. I suspect that on account of the global recession, northern Europeans are staying somewhere closer to home, the French are staying home and we’re attracting even more visitors from eastern Europe and Asia.