The Bastille Day that isn’t

This is obviously just pedantry on my part but I must take issue with this all-too-common characterization of France’s national holiday:

France celebrated Bastille Day on Friday with the traditional military parade of the four armed services, with
President Jacques Chirac presiding over the display of pomp and fanfare for perhaps the last time. (…)

The day commemorates the 1789 storming of the former Bastille prison in Paris by angry crowds, sparking the revolution that brought an end to the monarchy in France.

To begin with, the national holiday is never, ever, called “la fête de la Bastille” (or whatever translation would be appropriate for Bastille Day in French) in France. It is always “le 14 juillet”.

More importantly, the 14th of July is not exactly the commemoration of the storming of the Bastille of 1789. Granted, that was the intent of the late 1870s Republican activists and politicians who pushed for that date to be chosen as national holiday. But many conservative lawmakers objected to the symbolism of celebrating a bloody and divisive historical event.

That’s when the proponents of the 14th of July proposed a very clever deal to the doubters: if you don’t like the July 14th, 1789, just assume that the national holiday will be a commemoration of the July 14th, 1790. On that day, France gathered to celebrate the so-called “Fête de la fédération”, meant to mark the unity of the country and the end of the Revolution, one year after the storming of the Bastille. That was a mighty big delusion, of course, as subsequent events were to prove that France was anything but united and the Revolution far from over. But the day was still remembered as a heyday of national happiness and concord: during the 1880 parliamentary debate to choose a national holiday, one Senator emphatically characterized the 4th of July, 1790 as “the most beautiful day in French history, and maybe in all history“.

The trick worked: the 14th of July was eventually chosen over other symbolic days such as the 4th of August (the Old Regime privileges were abolished on that day in 1789) or the 5th of May (opening of the Estates-Generals in 1789). The bill that was adopted on July 6th, 1880 simply stated that: “The Republic adopts the 14th of July as its annual national holiday“.

And that, ultimately, is the rarely sung beauty of the French national holiday: it is not meant to commemorate a particular historical event, but two. And you get to choose which one according to your ideological inclinations.

4 thoughts on “The Bastille Day that isn’t

  1. That and the oft-repeated trope about them storming the Bastille to release the prisoners (of which there were few). Massive great big armoury, royalist army outside the walls, um, yup, they stormed it to release the prisoners, definately…

  2. You’re right, of course. The release of the 7 prisonners was really an unintended side-effect of the whole operation.

  3. The Bastille was a major symbol of royal power, and there was a lot of literature associated with the place at the time which made the place seem far more terrible than it was.

    Check out: Lusebrink & Reichart “The Bastille”

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