On July 14th, 1789, a group of French citizens stormed a 14th-century fortress-prison. Over 200 French citizens were killed in the ensuing clash with French soldiers. After the Bastille was taken, the crowd famously beheaded the prison’s governor (Bernard-René de Launay) and paraded his severed head on a pole through the streets of Paris.
More than 100 years after that date, in 1890, what was then commonly known as Bastille Day was officially dedicated “Fête Nationale” (National Celebration) and honored as a day of French National Unity.
For the French, the road to liberty and national identity was by no means a straight path. In the hundred years between Bastille Day and the creation of Fête Nationale, France endured a spectacular array of revolutions, counter-revolutions and military coups.
The Fall of the Revolutionary Republic
With the French Revolution won, the fledgling French Republic initially pushed through sweeping reforms such as the elimination of serfdom, universal (male) suffrage, freedom of speech and the press, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
But this overall political progress was balanced by an inability for the revolutionary government to make alliances and find common ground with the French people as a whole.
The nation became increasingly fractured as popular counter-revolutionary movements grew in strength. Eventually, the continued resistance from disparate elements caused the French Republic to switch its attention from political reforms to conducting campaigns of political executions against their rivals as well as declaring war on pro-monarchy nations such as Great Britain, Spain, Belgium, Prussia and Austria.
In 1793 Louis the 16th, who had been living the austere life of an ex-monarch from the Tuileries Palace, was tried for treason and executed. Soon his death was followed by the execution of the Queen, Marie Antoinette.
And while unrest continued to brew in the streets of Paris, invading armies of Austria and Prussia were also occupying more and more former French territory.
Napoleon Takes Command
In November of 1799, President of the Council of Five Hundred (the lower house of legislature) Lucien Bonaparte and his brother the military general Napoleon Bonaparte, seized control of all government organs. Existing elected officials were met by bands of fierce French grenadiers and either forced to resign or arrested.
Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself First Consul, stylizing himself an emperor and envisioning the future of France as a new Roman Empire. His Grande Armée would build a vast empire stretching across the entirety of Europe and expansive colonial holdings stretching across the globe.
Famously, Napoleon’s eventual defeat would finally come at the hands of Mother Nature as he pushed the battle-weary soldiers of the Grande Armée to extend his conquests into Russia where they soon faced the intractable cold of a Moscow winter. Those soldiers who did not die from frostbite were soon routed, Napoleon was captured, and the coalition of European monarchies who now decided the fate of France initiated a return to monarchy.
Napoleon would return from exile, only be legendarily defeated again at Waterloo.
In 1848, another revolution would create a “Second Republic” under President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. This Republic would last for 3 years until this new Bonaparte (the first Napoleon’s cousin) initiated a coup and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III. This new Napoleon created a new French Empire that would last for 18 years before being crushed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
In 1870, a new French Republic, the Third Republic was formed in the vacuum created by Napoleon III’s capture after surrendering to the Prussian army at Sedan.
The Republic was in poor financial health. The government was weak.
The existing political structure managed to remain in power only through creating complex compromises between political groups composed of radicals, socialists, liberals, conservatives and monarchists.
One such compromise was the creation of Fête Nationale, aka Bastille Day.
Informally, Bastille Day had always been celebrated by the lower classes of France, typically with feasting.
The new government wanted to select an official National Day that the entire country could get behind, and Bastille Day seemed to be the most ideal.
However, Bastille Day had a bad reputation among the more conservative elements of the coalition. The bloody mob justice handed out during much of Bastille Day had been declared an illegal act by former Napoleonic governments (who still had many supporters) and was still officially an illegal act under the Third Republic.
So it was decided that the creation of this new Fête Nationale would be finely tuned to maximize the level of French unity among the populace, and ensure legitimacy for the Third Republic across the entire range of both radical and conservative elements.
First, the day would be held on July 14th, the day the Bastille was raided.
Secondly, there would be feasting. Everybody likes to eat.
Thirdly, the event would officially commemorate July 14th of 1790, exactly one year after the Storming of the Bastille. On this day, the revolutionary French government held the “Fête de la Fédération” a feast and celebration.
Fourthly, there would be a military parade. The die-hard Bonaparte supporters who still held some power loved the idea of military parades, and this new Fête Nationale would take the unease felt by members of the upper class over a celebration of a bloody revolt and balance it with the very definition of perfectly maintained order: marching French troops.
Anatomy of a Military Parade
Today, Bastille Day and Fête Nationale remain tightly intertwined. The popular uprising of French citizens against their oppressive government now walks hand-in-hand with a conspicuous display of French military authority and power.
Here’s the Bastille Day military parade held in Paris in 2019 (about 2.5 hours long, fast-forward at your leisure) :
This parade features formations from every French branch of the military and includes a matching flyover of various flying air vehicles.
The Third Republic would eventually become the most long-lived post-revolutionary French government, existing from 1870 until being conquered by Nazi Germany in 1940. The current French government (officially the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958) could potentially beat this record in 2028.
If a new French government should one day force itself into power, by legislature or military force, it will almost certainly still need a day to celebrate the French ideals that have come to symbolize the French people and continue to bring its disparate classes together in unity: Liberty. Equality. Fraternity.