Monday, July 14, 2014

France Observes Its National Holiday But Can’t Agree Why They Celebrate

It’s Bastille Day, of course, commemorating the day in 1789 when the Paris Mob set off the French Revolution by storming the Bastille, a fortress prison traditionally used by the monarchy to detain its political enemies without benefit of civil appeal.  The French make a big deal of it. 
In the United States it is generally marked by an exceptionally busy evening in French restaurants.  In recent years the long-time loathing of all things French by the right wing stretching back to the panic of Federalists over the Revolution has been revived and we are told that patriotic Americans must despise the Frogs and their damned holiday. 

In France the holiday is known as
La Fête Nationale—the National Celebration and it does not, officially, commemorate the revolutionary event at all, but rather the 1790 Fête de la Fédération, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and supposedly symbolizing the unity of the nation under the constitutional monarchy that preceded the First Republic.  The national holiday was established in 1880 after observances had been popularly revived in 1878 and ’79.
Celebration of the storming of the Bastille had been neglected during the later turbulent and bloody periods of the Revolution and suppressed during the Napoleonic Empire, the later Bourbon Restoration and the Second Empire under Louis Napoleon.
When the Paris Commune was crushed by the Army in 1871 in the aftermath of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the fall Louis Napoleon with more than 30,000 Parisians executed, celebrations of revolutionary action by the Paris mob were naturally discouraged. 

But by the end of the decade the Second Republic was searching for ways to restore national unity and reassert national pride.  On June 30, 1878 the city of Paris declared a feast in honor of the Republic which became a gay affair with avenues lined with the Tri-color flag.  The following year the feast was moved to June 14 and a reception was held at the Chamber of Deputies, a military parade was held, and celebrations spread to other cities giving the day semi-official recognition as a national event.
But debate over the next year about establishing Bastille Day as a national holiday in the Chamber was often bitter and divisive.  Monarchists, some of the senior military who had been involved in crushing the Commune and other conservatives were bitterly opposed.  Instead they proposed August 4, the anniversary of the end of serfdom under the constitutional monarchy in 1789.  But the people’s enthusiasm for Bastille Day could not be denied.

The two big public events of Bastille Day in Paris are the world's oldest annual military parade--a swaggering display of French might--and one of the most spectacular fire works displays in the world.

In the end a compromise was reached to commemorate not the revolutionary action, but the Fête de la Fédération.  Authorities also made sure that the central event of the new national celebration when it was held for the first time in 1880 would be a grand military parade.  The holiday was intended to be less a celebration of the still dangerous ideas of Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) than one of martial nationalism.
To this day the grand military parade, the oldest such tradition in the world, presided over by the President of the Republic and spectacular fireworks in the evening are the center pieces of the celebration. 
But stop a Parisian on the street and ask what he or she is celebrating and there is no talk of the Fête de la Fédération.  Paris celebrates Bastille Day.

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