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The Fourteenth of July is Bastille Day in France (and wherever there are Francophiles.) In France, the formal name of the holiday is La Fête nationale, and it marks the beginning of the Revolution on July 14, 1789, when Parisians stormed the fortress prison called the Bastille.

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Only seven prisoners were actually in the Bastille that day, so the action by the revolutionary crowd was more symbolic than anything else, although nearly a hundred casualties resulted from the fight. According to Herrick Chapman, it is precisely the symbolism of Bastille Day and the Revolution which has remained “contested terrain” in France ever since.

“Unlike Americans,” writes Chapman, “who tend to view their revolution as an unproblematic part of their civil region, the French have continued to fight among themselves” over the meaning of their revolutionary heritage. Chapman concentrates on the period of the Popular Front to the Fourth Republic between 1935 and 1945.

Politics had everything to do with it. Chapman writes that Bastille Day was largely a conservative national and patriotic holiday, largely disdained by Socialists and Communists as nationalistic and militaristic, until the Popular Front came to power in 1935, when “the Left returned with particular gusto to the revolutionary tradition as a source of inspiration and legitimacy.”

As a result, the “Center and Center-Right felt compelled to ignore or evade the revolutionary origins of their republican regimes.” The latter half of this period also saw the Nazi invasion and occupation and then liberation by the Allies, setting the stage for battles over collaboration and Cold War-inflected politics in the second half of the century. A national consensus on the basis of the revolutionary tradition became impossible to achieve.

“Not until 1968 would large numbers of left-wing militants in twentieth-century France look to the Revolution for genuinely radical images of popular revolt, and when they found them would use them as weapons against both the Gaullist state and the Communist party.”

Chapman, who was writing on the event of the bicentennial of the revolution in 1989, wondered how that celebration would be done, how it would be used. That’s the question that should be asked about any and every national celebration, fete, or feast.


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French Politics and Society , Vol. 7, No. 4 (Fall 1989) , pp. 33-44
Berghahn Books