Wednesday, July 14, 2010

July 14, 1789, 1790, 1989, 2010: Bastille Day Myths and Realities in France and in MENA

*Original French version

For the 14th of July 2010, I was inspired to review important years for this national celebration. Here, then, is a resume of associations with this date that I found particularly striking.


The Storming of the Bastille, which has come to best symbolize the French Revolution, has therefore undergone the greatest re-invention as a function of the needs of an era, or of the "nation" in the sense of a continuous identity since then.  Accordingly, contemporary historians have done a great deal of research to reconstruct the events, cleansed of their mythology, in order to give a detailed accounting, but one which is simplified and more accurate compared to the more glorious renderings.

For those with an interest not only in history but also in literature, philosophy, and even the history of sexuality (like a Foucault), the most famous prisoner of those in the Bastille when it fell was the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). This marquis whose name has become the definition of a sexual and psychological practice was at the time a prisoner condemned for poisoning and sodomy.

The Marquis in profile, age 20ish, sketched by Charles van Loo c.1760

Original manuscript, on a scroll from the Bastille of the 120 Days of Sodom, by Sade

On July 2, 1789, according to the report of the governor of the Bastille, Marquis de Launay: Sade "began yesterday noon to cry out with all his force from the window, and was heard by the whole neighbourhood and passersby saying that prisoners were having their throats slit, were being assassinated and to come help them", Sade, "this prisoner who would not be diminished". Launay obtained a transfer for Sade to Charenton, hospice for mental patients then maintained by the Brothers of Charity. However, Sade was unable to bring any of his effects.
Sade: More than 100 louis worth of furnishing, 600 volume, some worth a great deal, and the irreplaceable, 15 of my works in manuscript form (...) were secured in the Bastille". The loss of these in the general pillaging and destruction of the Bastille, made him cry "tears of blood".

The Sade family castle in La Coste (now Lacoste), in the Luberon, 
looted and destroyed at the time of the French Revolution, then sold

The dungeon of the Château de Vincennes where Sade was imprisoned in 1777, then again in 1778 to 1784, when he was transferred to the Bastille

Psychiatric hospital in Charenton where Sade finished out his days, not because he was judged mentally ill, but on the pretext of "sexual obsession" (as arranged by his family and their connections) so that he might have improved conditions of incarceration

The French colonies at the time of the Revolution included those of the first period of colonization, at least those that remained after the defeat at the hands of the British in 1763:

In light blue: minus the loss in 1763 of Canada and Louisiana in North America, of the Dominican (island), St Vincent, Tobago, and Grenada in the West Indies, as well as Senegal in Africa.


Federation Day at the Champs de Mars in Paris, July 14, 1790

The first Federation Day was celebrated on the first anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, considered as the end of the Old Regime, a victory of symbolic importance beyond that of the battle itself. This celebration  later (in 1880) became the National Holiday. Thus each year on July 14 what is celebrated is not the violent storming of the Bastille but the anniversary of the New Regime, of the Federation, and of this celebration in 1790, which was deliberately intended to be one of reconciliation and unity. Although the Constitution was not enacted until September 1791, General Marquis de La Fayette, captain of the National Guard, and confidante of the king Louis XVI was made to take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution.

La Fayette's Oath, during the first Federation Day, July 14, 1790

Louis XVI did the same.

Then his Queen, Marie Antoinette (who wouldn't lose her head until the following year), rose up holding her 5 year old son aloft--Louis-Charles (later Louis XVII)--and took an oath of loyalty on his behalf.

100,000 citizens of the Federation came from the provinces and Paris to celebrate at the Champs de Mars, which had been transformed into a circular space for the purpose

Announcement of the Mass to be celebrated by Talleyrand, then Bishop of Autan, as part of the festivities

Even before the act in 1880 that made July 14 the official National Holiday, there were national holiday celebrations in different parts of the country. Certain traditions persist: the military parade, the street dance, and the fireworks.

Claude Monet's National Day 1878

To commemorate the creation of National Day on the 14th of July, 1880, this relief in bronze, a Monument to the Republic, was erected in the Place de la République, Paris, 1883

Street dance in Paris, July 14, 1912


For the bicentenary, France made an extraordinary and highly successful effort. The traditional military parade in the morning was followed in the evening by an exceptional Parade, created by advertising genius Jean-Paul Goude (he of the Egoiste! ads for Chanel; ex-husband of Grace Slick): La Marseillaise, a "parade of tribes", for "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" for all peoples, and for the unity of all--an international extension of the credo of the French Revolution. This was a spectacular presentation which can only be seen on Goude's official site. Select "All Goude" then "The Bicentenary" to see the photos of the initial preparations and then their realization. Worth the detour***** as the Michelin Guide would say.

Jean-Michel Jarre's concert at la Défense, planned for 1989, held in  1990 instead to accommodate Goude's "La Marseillaise"

However, all was not for the best in the best of worlds, because on the very night of July 14, 1989, there were problems between French youth of North African and of Italian origin in Cluse, in the Upper Savoy region of the country. In the course of the fighting a youth of Tunisian descent was killed with a knife. Riots followed, with hundreds of North African French taking to the streets, demanding justice against the perpetrator, stoning the mayoral building, and destroying windows on cars, storefronts and the Post Office. A hundred police officers restored order. It was a demonstration of the inequalities which persist within the country despite celebrations of unity. These inequalities also reflect the history of colonization, decolonization, and post -colonialism in the countries which are former colonies of the second period of the French Empire.

In royal blue, the more recent colonies of France, all independent since the decades of the era of decolonization, the 50's, 60's, and 70's.

France is now comprised of the mainland and the Overseas Departments and Territories, the DOM-TOM:

However, France is also a founding member of the EU.

In 2007, judging by the inclusion of the military troops of the 27 EU countries in the National Day parade, one would think that France was moving to a more European, rather than a national identity.

2007, inclusion in the national military  parade of the 27 EU countries for the first time (Photo: Patrick Peralta)


On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of independence for 14 former French colonies, President Nicholas Sarkozy  invited the African troops of those countries to be part of the traditional military parade on the 14th of July 2010: 400 troops from countries which were colonies during the second period of French colonization, and which had, while still colonies, answered the call to resistance against the Nazi occupation of France which General De Gaulle issued on June 18, 1940. Having strongly contributed to the liberation of France, the colonies hoped to liberated as compensation. Then, as France did not liberate them, they liberated themselves, some after more violence than others.

The troops of these countries representing the former French Colonial Forces were thus invited to take part in the military parade of the French Republic: Cameroun, Burkina Faso, Chad, Congo, Senegal, Mali, Togo, the Central African Republic, Benin, Mauritania, Gabon, Niger, the Ivory Coast, and Madagascar. On the Ivory Coast declined the invitation. The heads of state of the same countries were invited, with the exception of Madagascar due to current frictions with France.

Interactive map at France 24: all the francophone countries are former colonies of France except for la République démocratique du Congo, formerly the Belgian Congo.

However, many French people wonder if these troops have a place among those celebrating liberty, equality, and fraternity, given the history of military coups d'état, repression, and corruption by certain heads of certain nations. Others wonder if this style of parade represents a certain nostalgia for colonial France, and even if it is the place of France at all, as a former colonizer, to be celebrating the independence of its former colonies. Some reproach France that this invitation is an extension of its neo-colonialist policy since Independence, summarized in the expression "France Afrique", sometimes written "FrançAfrique".

A Senegalese Rifleman

As for the former French colonies of North Africa, which are a part of MENA, they have already celebrated their 50th anniversaries of Independence--Fezzan (part of Libya, 1951), Morocco (1956), Tunisia (1956)--except for Algeria which only achieved independence after a war (1954-1962), one that still has repercussions today, which ended with the Evian Accords (1962). The military parade on July 14, 2012 is likely to be even more controversial if the 2010 model is followed. Between the "harkis" (Algerians who fought for France against Algerians) and their descendants, the North African immigrants, the housing complexes in the suburbs full of young French-born North Africans who have been poorly integrated, and the arrears of the veterans of the French Colonial Forces still not recognized, there is much greater potential for controversy than with these celebrations of  July 14, 2010 and the 50th anniversary of independence for subSaharan African former colonies.

But let us stay in the present, and with the celebration of a republic founded after the Revolution in 1789 in the name of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" for all.

Joyeuse Fête du 14 Juillet 2010!

Your thoughts, comments, impressions?


Susanne said...

Interesting post! I especially enjoyed seeing where the French influence was in Africa due to my family's connections there.

Syria was a French mandate for awhile. Samer never really speaks highly of the French and I think a lot of it has to do with Algeria! As an act of "rebellion" against French influence, most Syrians try to learn English instead although I believe both French and English are now being taught to school children. OTOH, Lebanon seems more OK with the French influence. I met some Maronites here who spoke French.

Thanks for sharing! I have French on both sides of my family tree so... :)

Chiara said...

Susanne-a belated thanks for your comment and for sharing your and Samer's experiences. Much of the Levant was once a French mandate, and French was once the international language of diplomacy so that many older generations were fluent in French, as well as certain social classes. You rightfully point out that Christian Maronites were more likely to retain this influence.

Thanks again for your enlightening comment, and my apologies for the belated response. :)


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