Monday, July 13, 2009

Le 14 Juillet

That, my friends, is the Tour d' Eiffel in Paris on the night of le quatorze Juillet.

Tomorrow, July 14th, is Bastille Day. In France, there will be fireworks, speeches, feasting and drinking, many car accidents--some fatal--and a continuation of the Tour de France. Tomorrow's race will be just short of 120 miles from Limoges to Issoudun, rough country with mountains, flats and speeds nearing 60 mph. On bicycles. French riders will try very hard to win. Elsewhere in the world, there will be racing waiters on roller skates, embassy to-dos, demonstrations against French whatever and burnings of the French flag in some former colonies. Tempers still run hot there.

For those who may be a bit lax ion their European history, the taking of the Bastille prison in Paris by the local populace on July 14, 1789, marked the beginning of the French Revolution, and, arguably, the birth of the modern political world.

According to Wikipedia, on May 5, 1789, Louis XVI convened the Etat General to hear their grievances. The deputies of the Third Estate representing the common people (the two others were the Church and nobility) decided to break away and form a National Assembly. On 20 June the deputies of the Third Estate took the Tennis Court Oath, swearing not to separate until a constitution had been established. They were gradually joined by delegates of the other estates; Louis started to recognize their validity on June 27th. The assembly re-named itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9th, and began to function as a legislature and to draft a constitution.

In the wake of the July 11th, dismissal of a popular politician, the people of Paris, fearful that they and their representatives would be attacked by the royal military, and seeking to gain ammunition and gunpowder for the general populace, stormed the Bastille, a fortress-prison in Paris which had often held people jailed on the basis of lettres de cachet, arbitrary royal indictments that could not be appealed. Besides holding a large cache of ammunition and gunpowder, the Bastille had been known for holding political prisoners whose writings had displeased the royal government, and was thus a symbol of the absolutism of the monarchy. As it happened, at the time of the siege in July 1789 there were only seven inmates, none of great political significance.

When the crowd — eventually reinforced by mutinous gardes francais — proved a fair match for the fort's defenders, Governor de Launay, the commander of the Bastille, capitulated and opened the gates to avoid a mutual massacre. However, possibly because of a misunderstanding, fighting resumed. Ninety-eight attackers and just one defender died in the actual fighting, but in the aftermath, de Launay and seven other defenders were killed, as was the prévôt des marchands (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesseles

The storming of the Bastille was more important as a rallying point and symbolic act of rebellion than a practical act of defiance.

Shortly after the storming of the Bastille, on August 4th feudalism was abolished and on August 26th, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen proclaimed.

Of course, times were not that unilaterally great. The Terror followed, with tens of thousands of executions, and it took almost 3o years for the country to regain its equilibrium. Some would tell you it never did. So now you know everything you need to pass a college-level history exam.

Personally, I'm a Royalist. I like the idea of a ceremonial regent freeing up time for a president or prime minister to do what needs to be done without the pomp and circumstance attendant. Think how much more effective the government would be if the President did not have to spend half the day shaking hands!

Maybe I'll set up my own kingdom.

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