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Bastille Day: Birth of the French Republic

LIBERATION: Bastille Day, on the Fourteenth of July, is the French symbol of the end of the Monarchy and the beginning of the First Republic. The national holiday is a time when all citizens can feel themselves to be members of a republican nation.

This national holiday is rooted in the history of the birth of the Republic. On May 5, 1789, the King convened the Estates General to hear their complaints: but the assembly of the Third Estate, representing the citizens of the town, soon broke away and formed the Constituent National Assembly.

On June 20, 1789, the deputies of the Third Estate took the oath of the Jeu de Paume “to not separate until the Constitution had been established.” The Deputies’ opposition was echoed by public opinion. The people of Paris rose up and decided to march on the Bastille, a state prison that stood for the absolute despotism of the Ancient Regime.


Storming the Bastille July 14, 1789

On July 14, 1789, the storming of the Bastille immediately took on a great historical dimension; it was proof that power no longer resided in the King as God’s representative, but in the people, in accordance with the theories developed by their philosophers of the eighteenth century.

Within two days the Revolution could not be reversed. For all citizens of France, the storming of the Bastille came to symbolize liberty, democracy in the struggle against oppression.

France asserted its identity as a nation with the Revolution of 1789. On 14 July 1790, a year after the fall of the Bastille, delegates from all parts of the country flocked to Paris to celebrate the Fete de la Federation and proclaim their allegiance to one national community.

This was the first example of a people in a European country expressing their right (in modern times) to self-determination apart from an hereditary ruler, a right the French claimed for themselves and then offered as a model to all the nations of Europe and the world.

This display of national unity was deliberately organised on the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the first revolutionary act by the people against the arbitrary power of the royalty, an act that stamps France as one of the cradles of liberty.

Another outgrowth of this concept of a nation open to all who define themselves as free men was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (August 26 1789), which claimed to be universal in application.

Once freedom from the monarchy was won, the new rule had to be codified. Jurists, inspired both by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and by a long-standing French legalist tradition, dominated the Estates-General.

This body, which became the National Constituent Assembly after the Tennis Court Oath of 20 June 1789, gave France its first Constitution in 1791. Fifteen other Constitutions were to follow, leading to the 1958 Constitution that governs today.

Beneath this apparent constitutional instability may lie a genuine concern for the “State” and for the ideal of


Arc de Tromphe, Paris

 â€śpublic service,” defended by an administrators recruited on an egalitarian basis (of merit).

From the start the French Constitutions were founded on a principle new to most nations, the that of national sovereignty as opposed to royal pleasure.

The King’s vacillation, his flight to Varennes and the appeal to foreign forces to intervene eventually led to the downfall of the constitutional monarchy.

After the attack on the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, the Republic was proclaimed on September 221792.

However, even upon Louis XVI’s execution on January 21, 1793, France did not break completely with its monarchic heritage. It rejected the idea of federalism and never applied the egalitarian principles of the 1793 Constitution.

Instead, in keeping with the Jacobin spirit, a highly centralised policy was enforced under the authority of the Committee of Public Safety, dominated by Robespierre.

Supporters claimed the policy was justified by the aggression of the coalition of European monarchies outside France’s borders and by the uprisings within. The coup d’‚tat of 18 Brumaire VIII (November 9, 1799) put an end to the period of instability after Robespierre’s assassination.

Bonaparte, one of the Republic’s most brilliant generals, became First Consul, then Consul for Life before finally, in 1804, being crowned Napoleon I, “Emperor of the French.”

After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 France once again became a monarchy when Louis XVIII was called to the throne; he was succeeded by Charles X and then, after the Revolution of July 1830, Louis-Philippe.

The Restoration was followed by the Second Republic (1848-1851) and the Second Empire (1852-1870).

In 1875 a republic was proclaimed for the third time; France has been a republic ever since. The Third Republic enshrined in French political tradition the seven-year presidential term, still the rule today.

At the end of the 19th century the French considered the enduring gains of the Revolution to be the idea of the nation, one and indivisible, based on a voluntary union and incorporating the principles of human rights and national sovereignty, the rule of law and a republican form of Government.

As they are associated with France, these concepts are symbolised by the “Marseillaise,” the anthem to national unity composed in 1792 by Rouget de Lisle.

Except for the period between 1815 and 1830, the Tricolour Flag has represented France since the Revolution; it marries blue and red, the colours of the city of Paris, with the royal colour of white.

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