Monday, July 14, 2008

Passez Une Bonne Fete de la Bastille!!

Bonjour mes amis et francophiles! Ca veut dire, les personnes qui parlent et lisent le francais.

For those of you who aren't a part of the Francophone community, today, July 14th, is Bastille Day, the French independence day. This is their "Fete Nationale", or National Holiday. The French also refer to this day as "le quatorze juillet." Here's a primer for those who aren't familiar with this oh-so-French of holidays.

Back in 1789, King Louis XVI was the monarch of France. France was in the middle of a major financial crisis, and had a taxation system that favored the upper class, leaving the middle and lower classes with the majority of the debt. (Sound familiar, kids?)

On May 5, 1789, the Estates-General was called into session to deal with this issue. The Estates-General was a general assembly that consisted of three segments of the French population: the First Estate (clergy), the Second Estate (nobles), and the Third Estate (the middle classes, or as they were collectively known, "la bourgeoisie"). Members of the Third Estate carried the majority of the tax debt. The First and Second Estates represented merely 3% of the total French population.

Keep in mind that France, in 1789, was in the middle of a revolution. The French were inspired by their American friends and their success in 1776 that they decided to have one of their own, rebelling against high government spending, high food prices, and lots of debt. (This sounds so familiar!)

Back to the Estates-General. Each one of the Three Estates had their own grievances against the king, and the rules that were established for parliamentary procedure in 1614 were seriously outdated. The Third Estate, the largest one, wanted their group vote to count as much as those of the First and Second Estates. Long story short, the majority of the Estates-General meeting was more of a battle over which estate held the most power, as opposed to settling the tax issue. Eventually, the First and Second Estates got their way.

The Third Estate was so frustrated that on June 17, declared themselves independent of the Estates-General and formed a legislative group of their own: the Assemblee Nationale (National Assembly), which exists today as France's main legislative body. Members of the First and Second Estates were invited to be a part of the Assemblee, but the Assemblee made it clear that it would conduct business with or without them.

The main goal of the Assemblee Nationale was to create a national constitution. The King was none too thrilled about this latest development, but was forced to recognize the Assemblee's authority.

The bourgeoisie then started sporting rosettes in the tricolore: blue, white and red. This became a symbol of the Revolution, and is France's national flag today. They were getting a lot of support from their countrymen, which made Louis XVI furious.

And things started going downhill from there.

On July 11, the King dismissed his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the needs of the Third Estate. When this news reached Paris, citizens were upset. Crowds started marching through the streets of Paris, brandishing busts of Necker and the King's son, the duc d'Orleans. At one point, they stormed the Hotel des Invalides to acquire weapons. But they needed more weapons, and decided to storm the Bastille, a prison, for its large quantities of ammunition.

At this point, there were only seven prisoners in the Bastille, and the government had decided to close it. However, many Frenchmen viewed it as a symbol of royal tyranny.

Here's an image of the Bastille. Negotiations for the ammunition started early in the morning and continued into the early afternoon. The crowd became impatient, and around 1:30, stormed the outer courtyard and began to fire. This continued for another four hours, and only then did the crowd go inside.

Parisians anticipated a counter-attack, and built themselves barricades of stones, and armed themselves with whatever weapons they could to defend themselves.

When news of this reached Verseilles, the King knew that he couldn't fight against the bourgeoisie anymore. He recalled Necker, withdrew troops from around Paris, and returned to the capital city.

That wasn't the end to the complex relationship between the King and his people, but I'll stop there. I've gone on long enough. Special thanks to Wikipedia for helping me out with the Bastille Day history. Meanwhile, enjoy these images from previous Bastille Day celebrations in Paris. I'll be back later today with pics of a Bastille Day street fair I attended in New York yesterday.

Au revoir!

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