Officially called La Fête Nationale in France, Bastille Day is the English term for the French national celebration. It commemorates the events that took place on the 14th of July 1789, and 1790 – the Storming of the Bastille and national commemoration of it the next year. These events are critical moments in the breakdown of the traditional French system and the establishment of the modern French state.
Both events were only early stepping stones however in this evolution, as both predated a period of extreme violence and upheaval. Maybe almost ironically, the Storming of the Bastille which pitted French citizens against one another has become a symbol of French unity and pride.
Bastille Day History: Before the Event
France in the late 1700’s was undergoing significant changes. Much of the common population had been swept up in the ideals of liberty and had begun forming organizations and governmental bodies with the expressed task of creating a new national constitution. The political representation of the common arm was referred to as the third estate. The second estate, the nobility, pushed back against these changes.
The king of France, Louis XVI, was convinced by the nobility to dismiss a number of advisors sympathetic to the peasantry. When the common people heard this news, they feared the King was making steps to shut down the representation of the third state entirely and possibly conduct some sort of revenge on the organizers.
Crowds made up of thousands of outraged and fearful citizens began to form in nearby Paris. A man named Camille Desmoulins, who would go on to be an important figure in the years to come, stood up on table and yelled “This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the Champ de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!”
For the next few days, large mobs began to ransack storehouses of food and weapons throughout the city. French soldiers began to refuse orders and joined the demonstrations. Small clashes occurred in the streets – but in order to avoid wholesale slaughter, most of the French officers chose to withdraw rather than fight a pitched battle with their countrymen.
The Storming of the Bastille
In only a couple days the city of Paris effectively had shed any Royal authority and began to form their own militias. The precursor to the French National Guard, which would go on to play a unique role in French culture for another hundred years, was effectively formed.
The Bastille was part prison, part fortress and was used as a storehouse for weapons and political prisoners. This combination of purpose may it symbolic of the power of the monarchy in the city.
A force of citizens demanded the garrison and canons of the fort be surrendered. Negotiations took place but eventually fell apart when a group of citizens stormed into the outer courtyard. The initial commotion spread into panic and confusion, guns were fired, and a melee broke out. Leaders on both sides called for an end to the fighting but to no avail. Eventually, the attackers were reinforced by some cannons and sympathetic soldiers who had joined their cause. When nearby royal garrisons didn’t come to the immediate aid of the Bastille’s soldiers, their commander chose to surrender the fortress. He opened the gates and let the attackers in.
The end result of the incident was around 98 attackers dead, and one defender – with a handful of defenders who were not protected by the militia being killed by the mobs shortly after. Most notably a crowd would stab to death and raise the head of the Bastille’s governor on a pike.
Storming of Bastille significance
While the building itself was of no significant consequence, it effectively proved to the king that the people of Paris were willing to go to great lengths to push for representation and other significant governmental changes. The king allowed a number of concessions to the people of Paris and created a much more liberal structure for ruling them. Other cities across the nation saw the effectiveness of this type of revolt and followed suit.
Revolutionary fervor began to grip the nation. By August a formal end to French feudalism was decreed. In just over a year the French king would be fleeing his palace.
Watch this interesting video which explains the French Revolution in under 10 minutes!
Bastille Day in France Today
Bastille Day celebrations in France include Bastille Day costumes and a number of Bastille Day traditions, such as feasts. In fact, the biggest military parade in Europe is held on the day and often attracts foreign dignitaries. It is a very popular event and is watched by a huge number of people both in person and on television.
Watch highlights of the Bastille Day Parade, Paris 2017
Countries and municipalities across the world with either with a large number of French citizens, or a shared history with the nation all hold their own Bastille Day celebrations.
Read up on your French history with ‘French Revolutions for Beginners’ on Geeker and set the stage for your own Bastille Day event. Liberté, égalité, fraternité for all!
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