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Bastille Day – La Fête Nationale

The French Revolution was a long, gruesome phase in French history. It lasted for a decade. The revolution, however, was firmly established on the 14th July 1789 (or le 14th Juillet, 1789) when several common French people stormed a prison by the name of Bastille. The bloodshed and rioting at Bastille marked the beginning of this fierce revolution. Hence, 14th July seemed to be known as Bastille Day.

If you don’t know anything about the French Revolution, words like ‘Bastille’ and ‘Third Estate’ might mean nothing to you. So, why is Bastille Day celebrated after all?

Social Paradigm 18th Century France

The Third Estates, the Clergy and the Nobility

Before the French Revolution, there existed three social hierarchies in France: the First, Second, and Third Estate. The First Estate comprised the clergymen (or men of God), the Second Estate consisted of the monarchy, and the Third Estate comprised 98% of the population: peasants and clerks.

That being said, every Estate had the same power in court. For the longest time, the First and Second Estates came together to outvote the Third Estate on multiple occasions. One such noteworthy occasion was taxation policies. People of the Third Estate were being taxed left, right, and center. As a result, they kept getting poorer and poorer. Meanwhile, the upperclassmen lived a royal life in their castles.

Jacques Necker

In the late 1700s, the Finance Minister of France was a nobleman named Jacques Necker. He was one of the few rational people in the court of King Louis XVI, the ruling monarch at that time. Due to some disagreements with the king, however, Jacques was dismissed by Louis XVI on 11th July 1789.

Here is when the conflict began. Jacques Necker was in support of the people of the Third Estate. He was often the voice of reason in court, and one of the only policy-makers who considered the rights of the Third Estate. His dismissal created a lot of unrest in the common folk. The Third Estate started to fear for their representation in Court. They saw the dismissal of Jacques Necker as a move against the Third Estate. Hence, they started to prepare to retaliate.

The Advent Of Bastille Day

Bastille Day History: What Really Happened on July 14, 1789? | Time

Bastille was once a prison in Paris, France. It was used to contain prisoners of the State before trial and direct prisoners of the king who couldn’t apply for an appeal. In the late 18th century, it stopped being used as a prison. Instead, it was used as a storage space for ammunition; namely gunpowder. It was also a symbol of the unfair rule of the monarchy.

When the people of France decided to arm themselves, they had the weapon, but they lacked ammunition. Hence, they decided to go to Bastille and steal the ammunition belonging to the State. A large mob of citizens gathered outside Bastille with various weapons in their hands, demanding for the gate to be opened. The keeper of Bastille at that time, Governor de Launay, opened the gates of Bastille to avoid a massacre. This gesture, however, was misunderstood by the frenzied mob. The citizens, with their weapons, rushed into the Bastille and killed the French Guards along with Governor de Launay, whose head was then stuck on a pike and brandished across the city of Paris.

The storming of Bastille was the first rebellious attack on the monarchy. On later examination, leaders of the new French Republic found it to be a perfect date to celebrate a festival designed to reinforce the country’s national identity and foster unity among people. We now recognize this festival as Bastille Day.

Military Parade on Bastille Day

France to showcase European defence cooperation at Bastille Day parade

Bastille Day (also known as la fête Nationale) is a grand celebration still, just as it was a century ago. Since 1880, a military parade has been performed on the morning of Bastille Day. Now, it is held on the Champs- Élysées, which is 1.9 km long and 70 m wide. This parade is a popular event in France and is displayed on national television every year. From 1880 to now, this parade has been dismissed only five times: German occupation during World War II (1940-1944) and the coronavirus pandemic (2020).

Many francophone countries like Belgium, Canada, and Hungary also celebrate Bastille Day. Why, so much is its popularity that it is celebrated with extreme pomp in Pondicherry, India’s French-speaking colony.

Sources: Britannica, Time Magazine

If you like French history and culture, you might also like: The Louvre Museum

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