It’s a beautiful, sunshiney day in France, with a Frenchman leading Le Tour (biggest bicycle race in the world) . . .. it could be a day to celebrate. (Here in the United States, it is Lynn’s birthday, so we will celebrate along with the French, but probably for completely different reasons.)
My research today has been most enlightening (not exactly the Enlightenment, but I’m sure reasonably close), and I have learned all sorts of things, chief among them that while we in the U.S. (and Britain and other points speaking English) call it Bastille Day, the French tend to refer to it as 14 Julliet, much like we say Fourth of July. It’s also known as le Fête nationale (national day) — but not Bastille Day.
Two hundred thirty years ago, the Bastille was stormed, and nearly 100 revolutionaries lost their lives, and this did all lead to the downfall of the Bourbon monarchy, but it turns out the target wasn’t so much of one. The Bastille, which had started life in the 1300s as a bulwark on the eastern side of Paris, became a notorious political prison where the monarch tossed people he found disfavor with, with no trial nor sentence. By the time the revolutionaries came along, however, a total of seven prisoners (four forgers, two “lunatics” and one held at the request of his own family) were held in a building that had already been designated for demolition and conversion to a public square.
It further turns out that there is substantial American culpability in the fiscal duress that the monarchy found itself under. Louis XVI (16, for those of us who have to stop to puzzle out Roman numerals), husband of the more-famous Marie Antoinette, inherited tremendous debt from his predecessor, presumably Louis XV (the French may have imagination in a lot of other places, but not when it came to naming kings).
But Louis and Marie did nothing to rein in this profligate spending, squandering it on things like the American colonists, who were busily trying to separate themselves from their British overlords. (There’s a certain amount of irony in this story.)
So the French, who took issue with the British way back in the 1300s, precipitating the Hundred Years’ War that led to the construction of the Bastille fortress, still took issue with the British in the late 1700s and started secretly funding the American rebels, further depleting French coffers. A year later, following an American victory at Saratoga, the French openly declared war against the Brits in favor of the Americans.
And, during that harsh winter in Valley Forge (which, despite what you might have learned 10 days ago in a presidential speech, occurred well after Washington’s crossing of the Delaware — but before the takeover of all the airports), the French sent Baron von Steuben (a Prussian) and the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat, to help the rebel cause.
On Sept. 3, 1783 (which probably would make more sense as the Day of American Independence), the British signed a treaty formally recognizing the United States as an independent country, and they signed separate treaties with France and Spain (also allied with the Americans against the Brits — apparently George III was not popular with his European brethern).
So the French aristrocracy was busy helping the American proletariat throw off the yoke of monarchal oppression, while back at home the People were starting to suffer. Crops failed in 1788, and famine spread widely. Buying bread took up almost all of the People’s income, and when told that, Marie Antoinette responded with her infamous and vacuous “Let them eat cake.”
Instead, the People started demanding more of a say in how France was governed. Louis tried to appease them by reviving a long-dormant national assembly that gave a third of the say to the commoners. However, the commoners, 98 percent of the population, could still be outvoted by the clergy and nobility. The People wanted More.
Of course, the king, as kings are often wont to do, missed the warning signs and instead locked the commoners out of the national meeting hall. This was A Mistake. On June 20, 1789, the national body, including many members of the nobility and clergy, met at an indoor tennis court [let’s not forget the Wimbledon final taking place in England just now] to proclaim solidarity.
In response, the clueless king summoned military units to Paris, and on July 11 dismissed his one common-born minister, who was both reform-minded and popular. Again, A Mistake. The People started agitating, burning down the places responsible for imposing taxes and helping themselves to whatever food and arms they could find. And on July 14 the crowd stormed the Bastille, seeking the stores of gunpowder and ultimately dismantling the entire building. (Probably saved on demolition expenses.)
Only one member of the royal guard died, contrasted to the 100 revolutionaries (plus dozens more wounded), but like the Americans’ Fourth of July, this was the Beginning of the End. That afternoon the governor of the Bastille was killed and then beheaded.
Louis and Marie did not become prisoners until October, and neither of them lost their heads over this until a few years down the road, but the monarchy was done. Vive la republique!
Today the French celebration of this declaration of independence (the Americans issued a proclamation; the French tore down a building) features a large parade (one of the world’s oldest, having first taken place in 1880) on the Champs-Elysées, where bicyclists will parade in two weeks’ time.
Over here in the United States, where we never acknowledge our part in bankrupting France (I feel bad, now that I’ve known this for an entire hour), we will celebrate Lynn’s Day of Birth with the acquisition of a gas firepit (propane not included) and perhaps a stirring rendition of La Marseilles.