Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Paris Thursday (July 13) on a two-day visit, during which he will hold wide-ranging talks with French President Emmanuel Macron and attend the French National Day celebrations as the Guest of Honour. The national day of France is celebrated on July 14, also known as Bastille Day or Fête nationale française, and is marked by a long military parade, along with dancing and other merriment.
While July 14 is more popularly associated with the storming of the Bastille in 1789, it is also the anniversary of Fête de la Fédération, an event held in 1790 to celebrate the unity of the French people. Also, while Bastille Day is often seen as the symbol of the end of monarchy, kings and queens continued in France till long after that. So what exactly is the French national day the anniversary of, and why was the storming of the Bastille so significant?
Bastille Day can be said to have set in motion the decade-long French Revolution, which fundamentally altered French political and social life and influenced the foundational ideas of democracy across the world, popularising slogans such as “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). This was the day on which ordinary people stormed Bastille, a 14th century fortress-prison in Paris that was used to incarcerate political prisoners (the famous writer philosopher Voltaire and the infamous Marquis de Sade had both been kept at the Bastille at various times).
Before the storming of the Bastille, both economic and social tensions had been building up in Paris for long. In the 1780s, the French economy was in dire straits, and King and Queen Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were not helping matters with their image of irresponsible, profligate spenders. Crop failure and famine dealt further blows, and by 1788, even bread became unaffordable for a vast majority of people.
Under pressure, Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General, a body that had been around for almost 400 years by then, but could be summoned, heard, or ignored at the King’s will. This body consisted of the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate) and the commoners (Third Estate). When called by Louis XVI, the body was dominated by the commoners in numbers, but not in influence. After their calls for greater say for commoners were ignored, one faction broke away and established a new body, called the National Assembly.
On June 20, 1989, this body took the Tennis Court Oath, that they would stay together till they wrote a new Constitution for France. Louis XVI, meanwhile, started moving more troops into Paris, adding to the uncertainty and tensions in the city. On July 11, he dismissed Jacques Necker, his popular and only non-high-born minister. Protests broke out, soon turning violent.
Then on July 14, a huge, armed mob began marching towards Bastille.
Storming of the Bastille
The reason the mob chose Bastille was because people imprisoned simply because the King said so, without trial and without publicly stated causes, were often housed here; although on July 14, 1989, the prison only had seven inmates, of no great consequence.
Bernard-René de Launay, the governor of the Bastille, at first tried to negotiate, and gave assurances that he would not fire upon the marching crowd. However, as the negotiations proceeded and no word was sent out, the mob grew restive. A drawbridge was lowered over the moat and people began marching in. Seeing this, a panicked de Launay allowed firing. The Bastille defenders may have succeeded in halting the protesters, but soon, the latter was joined by the armed and trained French Guards. The Bastille was demolished, de Launay and the Mayor of Paris were killed. The ‘public’ had drawn first blood.
As stated earlier, the French monarchy continued long after this, but Bastille Day had shown what an angry and determined group of common people was capable of.
In understanding how Bastille Day fired up Europe’s imagination, this excerpt from an article in England’s The Guardian, published 100 years after the storming, can help: “The assembling of the States General, the triumph of the Third Estate, and the oath of the Tennis Court were all immeasurably significant facts, but they had been victories for the people rather than by the people. But when the populace armed itself and rushed in its thousands to take and demolish the grim old stronghold of tyranny, the people for the first time revealed the immensity of their power, and feudalism was smitten hip and thigh by a mob acting almost instinctively.”
One year later, while Louis XVI was still on the throne, the Fête de la Fédération was observed, to celebrate unity among the French people — a unity that would soon be guillotined in the bloodshed of the French Revolution.
July 14 celebrations over the years
Bastille Day celebrations had petered out in the intense political churn in post-Revolution France. However, by the 1870s, the need was felt for a national day of celebration of France and the French. While July 14, 1789 was a strong contender for its anniversary to be observed, the day was also one of violence and murder. Thus, July 14, 1790, was chosen as the day whose anniversary would be the national day. According to the BBC, the law to declare National Day was “deliberately ambiguous. It did not say which 14 July was being celebrated. And today, of course, everyone thinks of it as Bastille Day.”
India and Bastille Day
Before PM Modi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had attended Bastille Day celebrations in 2009. According to a French government website, “In 2009, Indian soldiers were invited to take part in the ceremonies and the military parade was opened by a contingent of 400 members of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force.” PM Manmohan Singh and French President Nicolas Sarkozy watched this parade.