When the French government dares to turn its back on the people, the people set the streets of Paris on fire.
Indeed, it appears to be a long-running tradition in French history. The country’s past is splattered with the blood and sacrifice of protesters who have continued a legacy of public dissent and demonstration. This culture of protest dates back to the days of the Revolution, and the storming of the Bastille was the start of it all.
Bastille Day, which falls on the 14th of July, celebrates the populist seizure of power from tyrannical rule. It’s also a reminder to the modern-day regime that the French citizens who invested them with power have the ability to remove them, too.
Here’s the rundown on Bastille Day’s history, and the resistance it continues to inspire long after.
First, what was the storming of the Bastille?
In terms of revolutions, no one does them better than the French.
But before the infamous Reign of Terror launched a series of beheadings by guillotine, high taxes and a summer of famine in 1789 lead French citizens to storm the castle of Bastille, a military fortress and prison. The seizure represented the resistance against the Bourbons, the tyrannical French monarchy.
Why it happened
To put it gently, King Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette were not loved by the French people. In fact, their reign ended with beheading by guillotine (and they wouldn’t be the only ones). But the concerns that prompted an all-out revolution went far beyond these two ill-suited leaders. (Though, they certainly didn’t help.)
Louis and Antoinette’s extravagant spending was rivaled only by their even more extravagant debts, which they inherited from the previous rule. By the 1780s, unemployment, food shortages, and high taxes had left the commoners desperate and destitute, while the wealthy nobility remained untouched.
When the monarchy began to feel the pressure, Louis tasked the Estates-General, the country’s legislative body, with drafting a new tax plan. The Third Estate (the non-noble/non-clergy part of the assembly) then split from the nobles and clergy and demanded a written constitution. This resulted in the creation of the National Assembly.
However, when Louis kicked out finance minister Jacques Necker, a popular non-noble, not long after, the response was explosive. French protesters filled the streets and clashed with royalist soldiers, burning down customs posts and looting the city for food and weapons. Eventually, the mob that formed ransacked the military hospital Hôtel des Invalides before setting their sights on bigger things.
What went down
The mob marched on the Bastille, where its governor, Bernard-Rene de Launay, cowered within. He agreed to negotiations with delegates, but eventually the protesters broke in, and de Launay gave the order to fire on the crowd. The revolutionaries suffered great losses, but eventually took the fortress after several hours.
Why it matters
Bastille was one of the key events that incited the French Revolution. Today, it’s celebrated with fireworks and parades. But Bastille day is so much more than a national holiday — it fostered a culture of civil disobedience in France that inspired countless revolts, uprising, and demonstrations for centuries afterward. Here are some of their most defining moments.
1848: The second Revolution
About half a century after the events of the Revolution resolved, the public mobilized in massive numbers once again to tear down the rule of King Louis-Philippe. They established the second Republic after a coup d’état held by Louis-Napoleon. The events were a part of a series of revolutions in 1848 in which revolutionaries across Europe protested centuries-old monarchies in Sicily, Germany, Italy, and Austria.
1968: “Cobblestone” Student Protests
Fifty years ago, students of the prestigious Sorbonne University took to the streets after an occupation at the university sparked violent conflict with the city’s police. The protests were famously remembered by the cobblestones the demonstrators dug up and flung towards police. The movement of nearly 9 million students, workers and civil servants eventually crushed government resistance, and lead to a 35% minimum wage raise, a 10% salary increase and the dissolution of the National Assembly. But it came at the cost of seven deaths and hundreds of injuries among the protesting parties.
1986: University Reform Protests
Much like the movement two decades before, the demonstration that occurred in 1986 also forced the French government to accede to the demands of the people. A proposed bill on university selection criteria caused massive upheaval from the public; once again the streets of Paris were filled with fire, blood, and broken glass. The protests came to a devastating climax after a student involved in the protests was beaten and killed by police. The bill was eventually negated and the minister that proposed it resigned.
2018:The Yellow Vest Protests
Last year, the streets of Paris were once again set ablaze when over 300,000 people across the country mobilized against a government-imposed tax on gas and diesel.
Protesters barricaded roads, blocked gas depots, defaced public property and burned cars for weeks on end in demonstration. The protests grew into a much broader resistance against the administration of President Emmanuel Macron.
It’s come to be known as one of the largest protests the city had seen in decades — and has continued, in a smaller fashion, well into 2019.