Rockets explode in a shower of red and green sparks. Catherine wheels whizz round on the other side of the lake, their fiery, galaxy-like trails reflected in the dark water. The noise is incredible. The crowd oohs and ahs at the increasingly elaborate display. This is Bastille Day, when the French formally celebrate republican ideals and French unity. More commonly, though, it’s a good excuse for a day off and a party.
Since it falls on a Thursday this year, most French people will take the Friday off as well, known as ‘faire le pont’ – making the bridge between Thursday and the weekend.
Why 14th July?
The 14th July is not called Bastille Day in French. The French refer to it either as ‘le quatorze juillet’ or ‘la fête nationale’. Nowadays, most people think it refers simply to the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on 14th July 1789 but it also commemorates the Fête de la Fédération. This was a big celebration held on 14th July 1790 to mark the anniversary of the capture of the Bastille the previous year. It has become symbolic of the birth of the modern French state.
The events of 14th July 1789 followed the failure to get agreement among the three Estates – nobility, clergy and commoners – about constitutional reforms. In the face of united defiance by the Third Estate, Louis XVI had agreed to rule as a constitutional monarch and to abolish fiscal privileges enjoyed by the other two estates. However, he intended to maintain feudalism and efforts at compromise foundered on the refusal of the aristocracy to accept its abolition, for which the Third Estate was pressing.
The army was called out to force the Third Estate into submission but mass demonstrations in Paris turned into an organised revolt. The people of Paris, fearing that the army would be used against them, stormed the Bastille Prison – also an arsenal – where political prisoners were held without right of appeal. At the time, however, there were only seven prisoners, no doubt somewhat bemused by this turn of events. This fact was glossed over and the event became a symbol of opposition to royal repression and aristocratic privilege.
The capture of the Bastille sparked off a chain reaction in the provinces and within a few weeks the former municipal governments had been replaced by a network of revolutionary committees. The rest, as they say, is history and, of course, it was all much more complicated than the brief summary here.
It was not until legislation was passed in 1880 that the 14th July became the national holiday, although no doubt people celebrated it anyway. Under the 5th Republic, successive presidents have used it as an opportunity to address the French people. Sarkozy chose to break with this tradition when he became president.
Fêtes take place up and down the country today. The crowning event in most villages, like ours, is a dazzling firework display. It will be interesting to see if, in this age of belt-tightening, the displays are quite as impressive as in previous years.
Before we lived in France, we had the misfortune to arrive by ferry at Le Havre on the evening of Le Quatorze Juillet one year. The SF should have known better, since he had already lived in France previously. We drove off the boat straight into a celebratory procession. Our hotel was on the opposite side of town. The road to it was closed. Fortunately, the police took pity on a pair of unlucky foreigners and waved us through.
Finding a parking space was a nightmare: cars were parked at all conceivable angles in the most unlikely places – on top of roundabouts, for example. Eventually, and with some (alright, total) loss of sense of humour, I managed to manoeuvre the car into a space with two centimetres at either end. After all this we were in no mood to join in the celebrations. We should have done, though: what sounded like World War III breaking out kept us awake till dawn.
See also my post about the origins of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.
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