The National Day of France celebrated on 14 July of each year commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille, a medieval armory, fortress and political prison by revolutionaries on 14 July 1789. The day, celebrated in France as Fête nationale française (French National Celebration), or as le 14 juillet (the 14th of July), is known in many places as Bastille Day.
The French Revolution marked a pivotal point in the history of mankind, spurring similar revolutionary and evolutionary uprisings around the world in quest for greater freedom and equalities. The French Revolution also gave the world the concepts of ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), which brought about profound social, economic and political transformations in countries around the world. Today, celebrations to mark Bastille Day are held all over France and in countries with strong French communities.
A look-back through French history reveals that King Louis XVI, whose rule from May 1774 until his execution at the guillotine by revolutionaries in 1792 marked the end of the French monarchy, was for all accounts and purposes the wellspring for the French Revolution.
The first part of his reign was marked by attempts to reform the French government in accordance with Enlightenment ideas. His deregulation of the grain market, a seemingly benign move, resulted in an increase in bread prices. In periods of bad harvests, this led to food scarcity which, during a particularly bad harvest in 1775, prompted the masses to revolt.
Discontent among the members of France’s middle and lower classes resulted in strengthened opposition to the French aristocracy and to the absolute monarchy, of which Louis and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette were viewed as representatives. The King then used the Bastille as a prison for the upper-class members of French society who opposed or angered him. By 1789, the number of prisoners imprisoned was over 5,279, many of them jailed on the basis of arbitrary royal indictments that could not be appealed.
On 19 May 1789, Louis XVI convened a meeting of ‘estates of the realm’ to find solutions to the government’s financial problems. However, the clergy, the nobility and the common people who formed the ‘three estates of the realm’ decided to boycott the proceedings and eventually formed the first National Constituent Assembly on 9 July.
The assembly began to function as a legislature and to draft a constitution. But two days later, when the king ordered the dismissal of Jacques Necker, a prominent member of the Assembly, the people of Paris, fearful that they and their representatives would be attacked by the royal military, stormed the Bastille, a symbol of the absolutism of the monarchy. When the crowd proved a fair match for the fort’s defenders, the commander of the Bastille capitulated and opened the gates to avoid a mutual massacre.
Shortly after the storming of the Bastille, on 4 August, feudalism was abolished and on 26 August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed. The concepts of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, today the national motto of France, have over the centuries helped fuel freedom movements around the world.
The French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ of 1789 defined Liberty as consisting of 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 in terms of judicial equality and merit-based entry to government. The law “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 employment according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.”
The Fraternity part of the motto which finds little resonance in the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ was later added on. By weaving and embellishing the slogan into every bit of the physical and cultural societal elements of France, the French see, hear, and experience Liberty, equality, fraternity in every moment of their lives. Each building in Paris not only has engraved the phrase on its front door, but those buildings contain tales of the revolution to be told by its inhabitants as reminders of the importance of democracies, liberalism and secularism.
Bastille Day celebrations held in France include military and civilian parades, musical performances, communal meals, dances and spectacular firework displays. The Bastille Day Military Parade is the French military parade that has been held on the morning of 14 July each year in Paris since 1880. The parade passes down the Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, where the President of the French Republic, his government and foreign ambassadors to France stand. The parade features thousands of soldiers from the French Army, Navy, Air force, Fire Brigade and many more.
This is a popular event in France, broadcast on French TV, and is the oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe. The accordion is a very typical French way to start Bastille Day. The firehouses open in the evening and francophones and francophiles go out and have fun in the streets and stop in the firehouses to dance and drink. In the evening, many Parisians make their way for the Bastille Day fireworks.