What Does July 14 Mean for the French?

July 14 is the Bastille Day, the National Day in France. What lies behind the high symbols and clarion words for a modern Frenchman?

As a man who has fully conceived the French culture, from the tender nail, as one would say, I can assure that the holiday is far from the heart and emotional perception of a modern Frenchman.

What happened back then, two centuries ago, when, as our schoolbooks taught us, "the infuriated French people toppled the oppression of tyranny and its citadel, Bastille, the royal prison"? According to the real course of events, by the beginning of the French Revolution of 1789, Bastille had long become a lockup for high-ranking political prisoners, as well as nobles who failed to pay the debts, usually ones deriving from card games. The enraged Parisians captured the poor governor of Bastille with his wife and daughter (the fate of both is rather unfortunate) and a couple of convicted lowly nobles. The prison bastion was taken apart brick by brick, luckily they were in short supply in those old times. The symbol per se was created by Robespierre, along with the dreadful instrument of Doctor Guillotin: it was important to send word to everyone that the newborn Republic destroyed Bastille, convoked the National Convention and assembled the guillotine on Place de Grève. Truth be told, the real symbolic place of imprisonment had not been Bastille, it had always been Conciergerie on Île de la Cité ("Island of the City"), where Marie Antoinette had spent her last days and where other high-ranking prisoners suffered. But the prison – in fact, a part of the Palais de Justice – has never been taken down. The new and quite bloodthirsty government needed it.

By the way, the holiday as such was set only a year later, in 1790. It was proposed by Marquis de Lafayette in the honour of the Convention's convocation and as a commemoration of the first anniversary of the Storming of Bastille.

Those long gone events created split in the French society, which has not been overcome to this day. It is suffice to say that the destruction of Bastille and the beginning of the Reign of Terror were followed by the formation of the White Guard (the National Guard, their uniforms were white, symbolizing the French royal flag with lilies), who wore depictions of the Sacred Heart (the Catholic cult of Heart of Jesus) on the chest. The movement was immediately backed by the uprising in Vendée, the suppression of which was so graphically depicted by Victor Hugo.

Curiously enough, the events of the times are still vivid. The royalist party in France is quite formidable today. It has its own recognized leaders – the House of Bourbons, which has several branches. The revolutionary events entailed a regional rift. Bretons, for instance, have not forgiven the central government for the cruelest suppression of the Vendée uprising, which they had joined en masse. Furthermore, Brittany is a strategic province in France, its annexation by the country was just as troublesome as the annexation of Scotland by England. Here, in Brittany, the contemporary nationalism is expanding and growing, invoking return to the origins, language and the Catholic religion. Wide circles of Catholics, by the way, frown upon July 14, because priests were the first to take the hit from the new government. Ships crammed with priests and nobles were sinked in Nantes, the capital of Brittany.

So, there are many categories of the population hostile towards their own National Day. Right after the Second World War, July 14 got a second wind in the eyes of maquis and de Gaulle's army. Parties with dances on the streets, around fire departments in France were held. The fact is that celebrations of July 14 were obviously banned during the Nazi occupation. Nonetheless, the emotional resource was exhausted quite swiftly, almost simultaneously with the resignation of the French Communist Party from the political arena in the early 1960s.

Just two years ago, French media tried to fathom the true rating of the holiday in the eyes of common inhabitants. The most popular response was: "For me, it is simply another day off! Nothing more!" Such approach is certainly somewhat related to the mass rejuvenation of the French population. For until the 1970s, the French nation had had a declining population. And only denizens from former colonies managed to rectify the situation. But the problem was that the "new French" bore their own cultural charge and their own holidays. Hence, the Storming of Bastille was part of alien history of a country they still greatly perceive as a former mother country.

That said, it is easier to understand why the streets of Paris have not been filled with joyful crowds in the last years. However, the President always reviews the parade participated by the best units of the French Army, including the worldwide famous French Foreign Legion.

A nation's recognition of own national holidays serves as an indicator of success of the social contract in a society, in other words, to what extent and how do citizens conceive their state. Unfortunately, July 14 is more of an exposure of a split than of consolidation of the French nation. For example, Eva Joly, member of the Europe Écologie–The Greens, has made a practically official demand that the military parade of July 14 be cancelled, as the holiday, in her opinion, "belongs to a different historical age and has become outdated."

It is equally important to note the fact that the modern French Army that has suffered from countless budget cuts and reduction of its size sees no reasons for satisfaction and on the eve of the National Day expresses its sentiments on social networks.

It seems that July 14 is a day when the French nation can once again assess the extent of its social aggregation and draw attention to many accrued problems related not only to immigration, but also to the crisis of values in the modern French society.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.