FrancoFiles S01E11: Bastille Day – Then & Now – The history & present culture of France’s National Day
- "Prise de la Bastille" by Jean-Pierre Houël (1789) ©Gallica/BNF
Andrea - Bonjour Francophiles, as most of you know, Bastille Day, France’s National Day, is fast approaching. This includes the Embassy’s virtual 14 Juillet, Bastille Day celebration, a special online festivity for the French community and all of our audiences that will be happening on the 14th of July. So on this day, you will hear from the ambassador, the consul’s special guests and surprise celebrities. So do tune in at franceintheus.org/bastilleday on the 14th! Which brings us to Bastille Day, which is the topic of today’s episode. And, well, we thought we’d give you listeners a full insight into the history and the present culture that surrounds this famed event. Much like America’s Independence Day, the 4th of July, 1776, Bastille Day really marks a remarkable change in French history, which occurred in July 14th, 1789. So we thought, what better occasion than to invite the host and historian of the French History Podcast on today’s episode! So welcome, Gary Girod, we’re pleased to have you with us and to have you walk us through the events and significance of Bastille Day.
Gary Girod - Well, thank you very much for having me on the podcast. I am looking forward to it as of course, Bastille Day is a fantastic holiday. I’ve actually enjoyed one in Paris itself and got to see a military parade. And I have to say, if you ever get the chance to all of our American listeners, you really should check it out. It’s one of those touristy things that is one hundred percent worth it.
Andrea - Yes. And from what I’ve heard, you know, you’re quite a Francophile yourself. You’ve spent time, and you’ve lived in France as well. Could you quickly introduce yourself to our listeners?
Gary Girod - Sure! For those of you who don’t know, my name is Gary Girod. Most of my family pronounces it ‘Girod’ because we are fully Americanized. But essentially my family comes from the French speaking part of Switzerland. When I was younger, going through my undergraduate days, I really fell in love with the idea of France. I studied in France. I worked with the French government. I was teaching English to school kids in the south of France in Béziers, which is about forty-five minutes by train west of Montpellier. Now I am finishing my Ph.D at the University of Houston and I’m writing a dissertation on Britain and France during the First World War and how their information services dealt with that.
Gary Girod - I fell in love with not just France, but telling stories, which I think is the best part of history. I’m a storyteller at heart and after listening to Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome, I thought, why doesn’t someone do that for France? That thought kick-started the French history podcast, which is a history of France that goes from three million years ago up to the present. So far, we are in the very beginning of the Merovingian period so it might take us a while, but I will be putting in my best effort.
Andrea - Wow, that is quite a long journey. But I can say we’re so glad that we have someone that is passionate as you are, to be able to be a host of a French history podcast. So like I’ve told our listeners, I recommend his podcast, and we are very privileged to have you today to talk to us about the Bastille. So we’re just going to jump right into it because it is a very rich history. And so what can you tell us about, you know, what exactly is the Bastille?
Gary Girod - The Bastille is a fortress that was built in the late 14th century by King Charles V of France during the Hundred Years’ War, which was a prolonged series of conflict between France and England after which England was eventually defeated and evicted from France. It lost its prominence afterward since most of the fighting that France took part in was along its borders, rather than within France. Furthermore, other palaces like the Louvre were much more important to the royal family. Later on it gained a new level of fame under Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, who was an incredibly powerful monarch. Under Louis XIV the Bastille became famous as a state prison for aristocrats who the king suspected of nefarious activity. Often, Louis XIV issued lettres de caché, which were orders for a person to be imprisoned and didn’t state the reason or give any evidence why the person was being detained. Many prisoners at the Bastille never knew what crimes they were charged with, and thus the Fortress Prison became a symbol of tyranny. However, it was much more of a symbol than an actual prison because at the time of the revolution, the Bastille was actually falling out of use and only had about seven prisoners, among them forgers and other people who were not these great masterminds trying to bring down the regime.
Andrea - Yeah. And I heard even some of the prisoners were actually held in very comfortable units. So like you said, it wasn’t really about it being a prison, but that lingering symbol of monarchy, of monarchy rule, that just frankly, wasn’t working at that time. In 1788, the riots began to spring all over France. There was a lot of calamity of events. So there was the raising of taxes, there was unemployment, there was a really terrible crop failure as well that brought famine to the population. So it got pretty ugly. I’m guessing at that time, you know, the people were claiming for a platform and a voice right?
Gary Girod - The 18th century was quite a ride. France for a long time had been the dominant power of Europe ever since the decline of the Spanish Empire. But during the 18th century, the British Empire rose to become the new great power. France fought many wars with Britain, including the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolutionary War, in which France played an enormous role in defeating the British and ensuring that America could become its own country. The problem with fighting these wars is that they racked up an incredible amount of debt. King Louis XVI had to deal with this and in 1777, he very importantly hired Jacques Necker, a Genevan banker to deal with the debt. Necker realized that the taxation system was the problem since the poor majority of French under the third estate were overtaxed, while the rich minority, the clergy and aristocrats, had numerous tax exemptions. Essentially, the tax system was still based upon the medieval idea of society where society was divided between those who pray, that’s the first estate, that’s the clergy, those who fight, that’s the aristocrats, and then those who work, which would be everyone else. The third estate composed around 95 percent of the population and they had to pay taxes. Necker essentially argued that nobility and clergy should pay taxes, and for that he got booted out of office. That led to more problems because he was essentially the only minister who actually had a reasonable plan, because as it turns out, you can’t just endlessly squeeze the poor and expect money to fall out. So for the next decade, Louis XVI hired minister after minister to fix the debt situation, but it couldn’t be done as either the assembly of notables opposed his plan or the Parliament of Paris did. Louis XVI couldn’t override them, which led to a very famous incident, which was the calling of the estate’s general to meet in 1789, which was the first time that the estate’s general had to be called in a 175 years. Louis called the estates general in November 1787 for a meeting in the beginning of 1789.
Gary Girod - So there was a 14-month period where thinkers from across France wrote out cahiers de doléances which were essentially grievance books, which they hoped to address at the estates general and try to fix what they believed to be problems with the country. To make matters even worse, before everybody got together in 1788, as you mentioned, France had an incredibly harsh winter, which in a society where 90 percent of people are peasant agriculturalists, having a terrible winter that devastates the crops leads to starvation, but also a huge economic downturn because the economy is mostly in agriculture. Essentially, in 1789, the estates convened and very rapidly, the third estate declared itself the only legitimate government in France and redubbed itself The National Assembly.
Gary Girod - So to bring this wild ride back to the Bastille, King Louis XVI and his ministers worried when these commoners, seized state power, declared all existing taxes illegal and abolished privileges. On July 11th. Louis XVI ordered Necker to leave the country, which was an incredible error since Necker was possibly the most popular person in France because he was the only non-noble minister in government and the only finance minister that international creditors and the French people trusted to solve the financial crisis. When news reached Paris the next day, the journalist Desmoulins told a crowd of Parisians that Necker’s removal was the beginning of a crackdown by the king and nobles against the commoners. At that time, half of the twenty-five thousand royal troops in Paris and Versailles were Swiss and German foreign mercenaries, so Parisians naturally feared the mobilization of these foreign mercenaries who were only loyal to whoever was paying them. July 12th was a bloody day as rioters clashed with officials. The morning of July 13th, the electors of Paris created a people’s militia of 48,000. Then, on July 14, the electors chose the Marquis de Lafayette to lead them, which he rechristened the National Guard. Of course, some people might recognize the name the Marquis de Lafayette because he famously became a brigadier general and fought with George Washington in the American Revolutionary War. So to get to Bastille Day itself, on the morning of July 14, the National Guard decided it needed to arm itself and stormed Les Invalides, the famous military hospital made by Louis XIV for his veterans. They met little opposition and took roughly 30,000 muskets. They then turned on the Bastille, thinking that they could raid it for supplies without having to put up a fight, just like at Les Invalides. The Bastille did have cannons and other gun so the Royal Army reinforced it with 32 Swiss grenadiers. Early morning July 14th, a large crowd of Parisians arrived and demanded the Bastille open its doors. Negotiations began, but they dragged on for hours, at which point the crowd grew impatient and began to storm the prison. In the confusion that followed, the Swiss fired on the crowd, fighting ensued and ninety-eight Parisians were killed, while only one Swiss grenadier died after a cease fire. The governor of the Bastille surrendered, and this became a symbol of the people’s power as they took control. When news reached King Louis XVI at Versailles he reportedly asked, “Is it a revolt?” to which de La Rochefoucauld replied, “No, sire. It’s not a revolt. It’s a revolution.”
Andrea - Right, and that is a very famous phrase. I know that we’ve gone into the storming of the Bastille, but just really quickly, for our listeners that don’t know, we had Paris and we had Versailles, could just explain quickly what was the difference. You had Louis XVI who was in Versailles, and who actually learned of the news the day after the storming of Bastille. Why was he not in Paris? I know that, history buffs will know the answer to this, but if we want to be clear on how it worked at that time, what was it like with the monarchy and their situation at Versailles?
Gary Girod - So I love Parisian people, but they do have quite a reputation for rioting. Going back to a very long time and essentially when Louis XIV was a young child, there was a popular uprising in Paris. This convinced Louis XIV he would always be in danger if he was in the capitol. So he moved the seat of government from Paris to Versailles which is relatively close; you can easily take a train, and it doesn’t take very long to get there today. It was at Versailles that he created this extravagant palace, which was copied all across Europe; at one point twenty percent of the national GDP of France, probably the richest country in Europe at the time, one of the richest in the world just went to Versailles. This was how opulent and incredible the palace was. Because it was this place of opulence that was inhabited mostly by aristocrats and their followers it became the counterbalance and the opposite of Paris, which was this enormous city, one of the most populous cities in Europe and the world at the time. Whereas Paris was a place for the people to live, Versailles was for the nobles. And so that was the great contrast.
Andrea - Yes, thank you. That’s the explanation that I think helps us put in context, you know, adding on to this sort of discontent and competition, I guess you could say. And so, going back to the Bastille, the governor that is stationed there, De Launay. He is unprepared for the event. He doesn’t have any instruction from Louis XVI because Louis doesn’t know, so he surrenders. The prisoners are taken, and then bloodshed ensues, including De Launay. And then the Bastille is dismantled, I believe just not far from the 14th of July. Correct?
Gary Girod - That is correct. The Bastille was actually destroyed very quickly after the storming. There were some revolutionary leaders that wanted to keep it intact. However, when the prison was destroyed, its ruins became an even greater symbol of the people’s victory, and today, there is a column commemorating it.
Andrea - There’s the outline of the building itself on the location where it once stood. And it’s near the Paris metro. But you’re right. I mean, it was basically demolished.
Andrea - So yes, the Bastille is dismantled. There is the guillotine at some point comes into the history and there’s a beheading of Louis the 16th and Marie Antoinette. But what I really want to emphasize is that the storming of the Bastille was actually just a very shocking start to the French Revolution that would last for around 10 years. This event is just was so, what can I say, revolutionary seems like the obvious word. So tell me a little bit about the aftermath. How this insurrection in Paris spread across France, more civic governments, tried to take place. Tell me a little bit more about what happens afterwards.
Gary Girod - The storming of the Bastille was a remarkable turning point in the French Revolution. At this point, Louis XVI realized he either had to start a civil war or submit to the will of the National Assembly and the people of France. On the morning of July 15th, he folded. He ordered the removal of royal troops from Paris, recalled Necker, and announced he was moving to Paris, where he would be under the people’s control. Thus, the storming of the Bastille was a symbolic turning point, and it demonstrated the power of the people against the Ancien Régime. In a matter of days the people of Paris were able to organize into a militia, take over the military garrisons of the city and force the king to submit to their rule. This led to increased confidence in the National Assembly, as they realized they had near total power and they began to pass more and more ambitious laws in line with enlightenment, ideals of freedom and reason. This arguably reached its peak in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen on August 26, 1789. These documents weren’t perfect, women were largely excluded since they weren’t deemed citizens and questions of race did come up. But even to this day, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is regarded as one of the great world documents alongside the Magna Carta and the U.N. Declaration of Rights. It’s this incredible doing away with the old system and it pushed society towards a more modern, rational and egalitarian system with rights for everyone.
Gary Girod - That’s the positive side. On a less cheery note, the events of the Bastille also foreshadow the darker side of the revolution. Since the Parisian crowd dragged the governor through the streets, stabbed him to death and reportedly paraded his head on a pike. This was before the guillotine became a huge player and the heads were actually cut off. On July 15th when King Louis XVI backed down, many French aristocrats started fleeing France, some of which were raising foreign armies to put down the revolution, while others would never return.
Andrea - So right, we’re, a year after the seizing of the Bastille and the events that you just described. Marquis de Lafayette who had been appointed the head of the National Guard by Louis XVI wanted to launch the celebration anniversary of a year later of the Bastille, which he had called la Fête de la Fédération. Which is the celebration of the federation. However, it wasn’t really until the Fourth of July of 1880 that this date became France’s national holiday. So what I want to ask is, every country chooses a national date that is important and representative to them. So why was the Bastille Day so important and why did it bring together the unity and identity of France?
Gary Girod - So that is a very profound question. And I think that symbolically it was definitely a great moment. But more than that, I think that a lot of history was poured into the event, essentially because of what people imagine the event to be and of how it was supported later. So as you mentioned in 1790, Marquis de Lafayette wanted to create La Fête de la Fédération. And this was supposed to be an event to bring people together because at the time there was a lot of tension between monarchists, constitutional monarchists, liberals, republicans, and, of course, between Catholics and Protestants, the people, the clergy and nobility. So France was not a united country at the time, but, the revolutionaries of France wanted to bring people together and make it a united country through a belief in France itself; and the idea of Frenchness. The idea that we are all French, would trump any class divisions or ideological, religious or political divisions. So this led to la Fête de la Fédération on July 14, 1790, where Parisians celebrated with feasting, fireworks and, of course, wine.
Gary Girod - After that, the revolution took a violent turn, wars began, Napoleon rose. And for a long time, France didn’t have a long lasting republic until the late 19th century, with the French Third Republic, which was born in 1870. During this time, liberal Republicans unofficially celebrated the storming of the Bastille as a day of freedom, while Socialist celebrated it as an example of the working class rising up against the aristocracy. However, the government didn’t make this an official holiday until 1880, Since during the first decade of the Third Republic, monarchists had a strong presence in the legislature. In 1880, Juillet 14, the 14th of July, became an official holiday celebrating the anniversaries of the storming of the Bastille and the Fête de la Fédération
Gary Girod - So, just as a side note to everyone visiting France, it is officially called Juillet 14 though it is called Bastille Day abroad. I know, because whenever I use the term Bastille Day, I get pilloried by French people who say that I’m not being authentically French. But in any case, from 1880, that’s when it really became a big holiday. And today, July 14th, is a day off and French people spend it with friends and family and nearly every year since 1880 there is a military parade in Paris along the Champs Elysees showcasing the many branches of France armed servicemen and women alongside smaller parades and other cities, and the night usually ends in fireworks. Whether or not this event actually helped to create a sense of Frenchness, I think that by 1880 there was this desire for some sort of stability after so many different governments, because there was the revolutionary governments, then there was the Napoleonic empire, then there was the restoration. There was Louis Philippe, there was a brief second republic and then the Second Empire and Third Republic, that essentially this became a point for people to come together. So whether or not France has ever truly been able to come together in a common national identity of saying we are all French men and French women, the fact is, is that this event is an attempt to bring everyone together.
Andrea - Yeah, I agree with you. I have to say the 14 de Juillet is a commemoration of the vast history that brings people together, that brings French people together or not, but that they have all shared in some ways in their own experiences. And, you know, for 231 years since the beginning of the celebration of France’s National Day, it’s also become emphasized in different parts and moments in French history. So, I’m thinking in 1919, it was sort of renamed or coined as Fête de la Victoire so Victory Day after World War One. You had in 1945 as well, Bastille Day was really, you know, this celebration for numerous days, you know, a way to rejoice. And then you had other significant moments as well as 1994 where you had the Eurocorps take part of the French national parade on the Champs-Elysées. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, you had German soldiers parade in France and this was under the sign of this Franco German reconciliation. So it’s been also used, you know, as a symbol of unity in different moments in French history. And like you, you said it’s the oldest and largest military parade in Europe in fact. And every year, there is always something new. We were talking about earlier about this hoverboard situation, Gary, if you want to share with our listeners!
Gary Girod - Last year, 2019, the parade marked a number of anniversaries. It was the 230th anniversary of the beginning of the French Revolution, the seventy fifth anniversary of the D-Day landings which saw the allies land in Normandy in order to begin the liberation of France from Nazi Germany and the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. It was also the centennial of the historic parade of 1919, which marked the end of World War One. And it was the seventieth anniversary of the foundation of NATO. And finally, if you didn’t think that was enough, it was also the 30th anniversary since the raising of the Franco German brigade.
Gary Girod - So a lot of history happened there. This parade in 2019, July 14th, was a massive parade, with 4,000 troops, over 300 vehicles. And as you were talking about with there was even a hoverboard and not the kind of hover boards that we think about that are basically scooter. This hoverboard is called a FlyBoard Air made in France by French people. For those who haven’t seen it, I recommend looking it up on Google. Otherwise, I’ll try to post some pictures on my social media. If you’ve ever seen any of these Spider-Man movies that have the Green Goblin in it and you see him flying around on that little platform, that’s essentially what it is. It is a fast moving, very agile platform that people can fly on. And it was part of President Macron’s program to make futuristic military weapons. And interestingly, just as a small side note, Macron has actually hired sci fi writers to work with the military to think up new weapons. And this essentially became the first parade that showcased France’s move towards the future and towards more high tech weaponry, both in the form of the Flyboard air, but also there were a number of French infantry who were walking around with what looked like giant Lego guns that don’t shoot bullets, but they send out a radiofrequency that can disrupt drones in case there was any drone buzzing by. So it was quite a festival with a lot of interesting new toys involved.
Andrea - Wow, yeah. I always think it’s amazing how France can really balance, history, modernity, we’re talking about technology, really, really high-tech things. I am just amazed, and of course, using this occasion, the Bastille Day, to demonstrate all of that, because, like we said, it has a rich history of having that military importance because it is part of the heritage. Using this occasion to showcase is interesting for France, for the world, for the US, for everyone. Bastille day is a well-known known celebration either you call it Bastille Day or the Fourteenth of July or le 14 Juillet, it’s on the world stage, the celebration that is. And, you know, in the US the celebration of Bastille day is happening everywhere and will be happening as we get closer to that date. You know, I’m thinking of something that I saw in New Orleans, this very funny puppy costume contest where you have pet owners that are encouraged to dress up their dogs in this handsome French garb. I mean, you really have activities for everyone, all types of things happening that day. And you know, like I said at the beginning of the podcast, I invite our listeners to also try and log into our virtual 14th of July Bastille Day event, which will be happening on the 14th. And we’ll be having a lot of surprise guests, but also activities that will be available and with bilingual options.
Gary Girod - So not only should you check out the French Embassy’s Bastille Day event online, but also depending on where you are across the world, there’s a good chance that you can participate, in live events because Bastille Day isn’t just a French holiday. In fact, Francophiles across the world celebrate on their own. In some countries the French Embassy or French institutions lead events such as in Budapest the Institut de France sponsors a two-day festival with French food, dancing, music and fireworks. The French Embassy in Ireland puts on events in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. And the French Embassy in D.C. puts on an annual event. Now, because of Covid, they might have scaled back events or perhaps even canceled. But if not this year, then you should really see if there are local events happening, because even in America, normally during years that we aren’t facing an epidemic, there are over a hundred and fifty Bastille Day events. So don’t just celebrate online and put on your little Cockades, if it’s safe, see if you can meet up with any other French people or just Francophiles and enjoy some fantastic food, wine, and the spirit of France together, because Bastille Day really is a pretty beautiful thing. And I think that the Bastille Day more than anything, is like France. It’s part history, part dream. It’s this idea that maybe France never has quite realized, but the idea that we can all come together as sort of a beautiful unity together. It’s what the revolutionaries tried to celebrate in 1790, in 1919 after the First World War, when so many people were exhausted and society was really being pulled in different directions. The prime minister, George Clemenceau, had the Fete de la Victoire to try to bring this country together. Not only that, but in 1945 Charles de Gaulle had the Bastille Day celebration to try to bring together again a divided and hurt society after World War Two. And it’s not just that this celebration has tried to bring France together, but importantly, in 2002, the year after the devastating September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, France invited firefighters from the New York Fire Department to march with them. So it’s been a healing and uniting event both for the people of France and people across the world, including much of Europe, as other European brigades have been allowed to march with France. So I know that this year with Covid, things are pretty scaled back, but even if it’s just a virtual thing, try to find some way to celebrate it because it really is such wonderful and symbolic holiday.
Andrea - Thank you, Gary, I agree. I think that’s exactly what we’re all looking for, and we’ve all sort of been through something together and this could be the moment of unity for us to feel like we’re a part of something. And thank you, Gary. There’s no better way to say it. Bastille day can be more than just a historic event. So thank you so much, and please, for everyone listening, you’ve heard Gary today. He is a magnificent co-host, and he has a lot of information to share with you! He loves history, as you can tell. And so I really do invite you to check out his podcasts The French History Podcast. Right, Gary, which you can find on most any platforms, pretty much everywhere.
Gary Girod - I’m sure just Google us. You will find us and enjoy some French history content. When the Bastille Day comes up, I will be sure to post some interesting pictures, even some video. I didn’t get to mention it, but before we were talking about how in 1919, during the Fête de la Victoire, the world was undergoing the Spanish flu epidemic. And so you can actually see brigades marching with masks. I’ll try to post some photos of that. I’m sure that will be fun and also relevant given the times we are living in. So if you want to follow the French history podcast on Twitter or Facebook, whatever, and enjoy free and add free content then check us out.
Andrea - Thank you so much. Gary, I know we’re all looking forward to those photos and content. Thank you, Francophiles. And I hope that you have a lovely week. Thanks for listening and until next time, à bientôt.