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Today is Fête nationale (“French National Day”), commonly known in France as Le quatorze juillet (“the Fourteenth of July”) and better known in English as Bastille Day. Bastille Day is a the annual commemoration of Fête de la Fédération, which in itself was a celebration in commemoration of the first anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. Read on for a little bit of French history!
So, the Bastille was a fortress built between 1370 and 1557. At first, Charles the Wise of France designed it as a gate, but Charles the Mad, his son, turned it into a stronghold. It was first used as prison by Cardinal de Richelieu (yes, that Richelieu against whom the famous Three Musketeers fought) in the Seventeenth Century. Every prisoner there was held by lettre de cachet, a direct order of the reigning king that could not be appealed, usually for speaking or otherwise working against the monarchy.
Though the Bastille usually held around 40 prisoners at a time, on July 14, 1789, it only had seven, who were mostly annoyed by the disturbance that the people storming the Bastille caused. The assault on Bastille Prison is generally considered the beginning of the French Revolution, though, of course, tensions were high long before that day.
The French Revolution began shortly after the American Revolution ended. It facilitated the creation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the first four translated articles of which are as follows:
- Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
- The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
- The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.
- Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
Because these rights only applied to “men who were French, at least 25 years old, paid taxes equal to three days work, and could not be defined as servants”, a French activist and playwright Olympe de Gouges wrote a response in 1791: the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.
If you’re interested, the French motto (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité“), closely associated with the French Revolution, has it’s own engaging story; the very (very!) short version is that it was one slogan among many, but it rose in popular consciousness and was made official at the end of the Nineteenth Century.
What celebrations does your country celebrate for it’s primary national holiday? In the United States, that’s the Fourth of July: fireworks and patriotic songs and parades for all!