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4 things to know about Bastille Day and why it still matters for French democracy

4 things to know about Bastille Day and why it still matters for French democracy
[Photo: Flickr user Joe deSousa]

Don’t be alarmed today if you see a red-white-and-blue-clad mime cheering for Les Bleus. It doesn’t mean you’ve missed the World Cup Final, but instead have stumbled into a Bastille Day celebration.

Bastille Day is France’s national day, marking the beginning of republican democracy. If you haven’t read Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities since high school and couldn’t afford tickets to the last touring production of Les Miserables, here’s a refresher on the French history that led to the annual champagne-and-chèvre-filled party on July 14:

  • The date marks the day that a mob broke into the Bastille, a central Parisian prison, on July 14, 1789. As tension between Royalist troops and anti-monarchist forces increased, the anti-monarchists decided to storm the Bastille, which was rumored to hold many political dissidents locked up by the tyrannical Bourbon rulers (sadly, no relation to Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s).
  • At the time, Louis XVI and his cake-enthusiast queen, Marie Antoinette, were on the throne. The monarchy was deeply out of touch with the realities of life for most of the citoyens, particularly as the country was in the middle of a deep economic and political crisis.
  • The armed mob surrounded the Bastille on the morning of July 14. According to The Independent, after nearby soldiers opted not to intervene, 1,000 people broke into the fortress. Unfortunately, there were only “seven elderly prisoners” in the Bastille at the time. Nevertheless, the action proved to would-be revolutionaries across France that King Louis was vulnerable.
  • Storming the Bastille became the flashpoint for the revolution, eventually leading to the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy, the execution of the king and queen, and the rise of la Republique française. 

To celebrate Bastille Day, wave a tricolor flag and sing “La Marseillaise,”  because both originated from the revolution. France marks Bastille Day with fireworks, family parties, and a grand parade down the Champs-Élysée–the oldest military parade in the world, dating back to Bastille Day 1880.

Or if you’re celebrating at home, learn to say the French republic’s national motto–“liberté, egalité, fraternité“–with a convincing French accent.

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