Why Is There July 14 “Bastille Day”?

Statue of la Republique by the Morice brothers 1883©Colleen Shaughnessy-Larsson 2010

The bronze Republican statue (la République) wears a toga. In her right hand is the olive branch and in her left the Tables of the Law, inscribed with the words rights of man (Droits de l'homme). The base represents major events in the birth of the Republic. ©Colleen Shaughnessy-Larsson 2010

Today is Bastille Day on July 14 in France. This year as I am watching the military parade on TV, the rain is pouring down. Aircraft squadrons fly over the Champs-Elysées on the France 1 television channel. A moment later, I look out the window and they fly low over the Bastille area. Parachutists wave to the camera as they dive into the rain.

The African national flags of former French colonies (or in the case of Algeria, a former French territory) are attached to their legs. They gather them up with their chute when landing with precision in front of the reviewing stand.

These flags can now be displayed by military members of these thirteen African nations who have been invited to participate in today’s parade.  Appropriately, the rain stops as President Nicolas Sarkozy descends the steps to shake hands with each soldier. The sun peeks out, temporarily, from the clouds.

Looking back over French history, the military parade idea in France is fairly recent. The whole Bastille Day ceremony began piecemeal and eventually melded into one national holiday.

General Lafayette forms a national federation
It is one year since the storming of the Bastille. General Lafayette wants to celebrate the nation’s unity and the destruction of the Bastille.

Central French powers being weak, associations of local national guards spring up around France. The Commune of Paris and Lafayette decide to unite these provincial militias under one national federation.

He uses the military parade idea first in 1790. As a way to celebrate Bastille Day, he orders the militias to march under their provincial banners between the Bastille and Champ de Mars. This will be the first and the last military parade for almost another century.

Time marches on; the parade soon follows
After nearly eighty-five years, three constitutional monarchies, two republics and two empires, France has the confidence to establish a third republic and a national identity.

In 1880 the country needs to rally the people to act as a nation and not as individual provinces. The Third Republic is modernizing. The government wants to inspire the philosophy of patriotism. It proposes secularism and gives France an educated work force. It needs an identity with symbols that the populace can hold onto such as a good song to sing at a party, some fireworks and a parade.

The 1880 festivities include the Marseillaise, written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. It is already the national anthem in 1795. The President, Jules Grévy, orders that a military parade take place at the  Longchamp hippodrome. The minister of the interior decides that the national holiday needs a burst of color, so they light the fireworks.

As icing on the national cake, the plaster model of the statue of the Republic takes its place in the tenth arrondissement (the bronze statue is inaugurated three years later).

It isn’t until 1915 that the parade moves to the Champs Elysées. The Second World War disrupts the Bastille Day celebration between 1939 and 1945. The Armée de la Liberation, however, opens the Champs Elysées to the military parade again in August 1944.

Although budget cuts are taking place due to the harsh economic climate, the parade and the fireworks are two items on the current budget agenda that the government (federal and city of Paris) has decided are staying.

References:
Troisième République
l’Internaute: Histoire – Alice Pouyat

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© 2012 Colleensparis.com
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