Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Paris on Thursday, July 13, for a two-day visit during which he would engage in comprehensive discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron and participate in the French National Day festivities as the esteemed Guest of Honour. The French National Day, also known as Bastille Day or Fête nationale française, is celebrated on July 14 and is highlighted by a grand military parade and various joyful activities such as dancing.
While July 14 is commonly associated with the historic storming of the Bastille in 1789, it also commemorates the Fête de la Fédération, an event held in 1790 to honor the unity of the French people. Although Bastille Day represents the symbolic end of the monarchy, it is worth noting that monarchs continued to rule in France for a considerable time after that. Therefore, it is important to understand the significance of the French national day and why the storming of the Bastille holds such importance.
Bastille Day can be seen as the catalyst for the decade-long French Revolution, which brought about fundamental changes in French politics and society, and greatly influenced democratic principles worldwide. It was on this day that ordinary citizens stormed the Bastille, a fortress-prison in Paris that housed political prisoners. Notable figures like the renowned writer and philosopher Voltaire and the infamous Marquis de Sade had been held captive in the Bastille at different times.
The events leading up to the storming of the Bastille involved deep-seated economic and social tensions that had been mounting in Paris for a considerable period. In the 1780s, France was facing severe economic hardships, and the lavish spending habits of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette only worsened the situation, casting them in a negative light. Crop failures and widespread famine added to the people’s struggles, and by 1788, a vast majority of the population could no longer afford basic necessities like bread.
Under mounting pressure, Louis XVI called for a meeting of the Estates-General, an assembly that had existed for nearly four centuries but held limited influence, as the king could decide whether to convene it, acknowledge its deliberations, or ignore it altogether. The Estates-General consisted of three estates: the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), and the commoners (Third Estate). However, when the commoners’ pleas for greater representation were dismissed, they broke away from the Estates-General and formed a new body known as the National Assembly.
On July 14, a massive armed crowd began marching toward the Bastille.
The choice of the Bastille as their target was due to the fact that it symbolized a place where individuals were imprisoned solely at the king’s whim, without trial or public explanation. On the day of the event in 1789, the Bastille only housed seven inmates of little significance.
Initially, the governor of the Bastille, Bernard-René de Launay, attempted negotiations and assured the crowd that he would not order his men to fire upon them. However, as time passed without any progress, the restless mob became more agitated. Eventually, a drawbridge was lowered, and people started entering the Bastille. Witnessing this, a panicked de Launay gave the order to open fire. The defenders of the Bastille may have initially managed to halt the protesters, but soon they were joined by the armed and trained French Guards. Ultimately, the Bastille was captured, de Launay and the Mayor of Paris were killed, and the “public” had claimed its first victory.
As mentioned earlier, the French monarchy persisted long after this event, but the storming of the Bastille demonstrated the power and determination of an angry collective of common people.
To grasp the profound impact of Bastille Day on Europe’s imagination, one hundred years later, an excerpt from an article published in England’s The Guardian can shed light: “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 after these events, while Louis XVI still reigned, the Fête de la Fédération was observed to celebrate unity among the French people—a unity that would soon be marred by the bloodshed of the French Revolution.
Over the years, Bastille Day celebrations experienced fluctuations due to the intense political changes in post-Revolution France. However, in the 1870s, there arose a need for a national day to commemorate France and its people. Although July 14, 1789 was a strong candidate for the anniversary celebration, it was also associated with violence and murder. Consequently, July 14, 1790 was chosen as the official date for the national day. According to the BBC, the law declaring the National Day was intentionally ambiguous, not specifying which July 14 was being commemorated. Nevertheless, today, Bastille Day is the commonly acknowledged reference for this important occasion.