Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Bastille Day

Today, the people of France celebrate Bastille Day, in remembrance of the storming of the Bastille on July 11, 1789.  King Louis XVI dismissed the Finance Minister Jacques Necker, who was sympathetic to the Third Estate, the working class.  The working class became afraid that their representatives would be attacked and sought ammunition for the general population.  The Bastille, the fortress-prison of Paris, held a large cache of ammunition and gunpowder, and acted as a symbol of the French monarchy, holding political prisoners.  Previously in the day, Les Invalides had also been stormed, for similar reasons. 

The storming of the Bastille marked a turning point in the French revolution.  Within a little over a month, feudalism in France would be abolished on August 4, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen would be proclaimed on August 26.  

Celebrations for the day started as early as a year later.  On July 14, 1790, the Fête de la Fédération was held to celebrate the unity of the French people.  Nearly one hundred years later, the celebration would be made official, the Fête Nationale, or National Celebration.

Typically, the day would hold one of the oldest and largest military parades in Europe.  This year, because of the global pandemic, the military parade was suspended.  Instead, the celebration was recalibrated to honor medics, postal workers, and other essential workers that have been heroes of the pandemic.  President Emannuel Macron used the celebration to admit past mistakes in handling of the pandemic and to focus on French recovery, instituting a mask mandate for all enclosed public spaces starting August 1 and outlining a €100 billion recovery plan.

We remember these events, we remember the French revolution, the American revolution because of what they created.  The French revolution decriminalized heresy, blasphemy, and witchcraft; ended one of the oldest European monarchies with a republic based on universal male suffrage; introduced no-fault divorce and easy adoption; embraced the ideal of formal equality before the law; and for at least a short time, championed universal employment, education, and subsistence as basic human rights.

Prior to the revolution, fear swept across the country.  Businesses started collapsing.  A select few made huge fortunes.  Panicked customers start hoarding - paper, food, weapons, whatever they can get their hands on.  The government's reaction was inconsistent and ineffectual.  Ordinary commerce ground to a halt.  Political factionalism grew more and more intense.  

Then everything fell apart.

That sounds eerily prescient, doesn't it.  

Are we on the precipice of a similar revolution?  There is so much division in this country, so much rancor, to the point we've even politicized public health and safety.  We're attacking each other over whether someone wears a mask to protect the general population.  We're at each others throats with so much change necessary.  We still have to address deep racial issues in this country.  We have to address an ever increasing wealth gap and the destruction of the middle class.  We still have many situations in which we still allow legal discrimination on what should be protected classes of people.

A change is certainly coming.  The question becomes do we learn from history.  Do we go through a Reign of Terror and a military dictatorship like France to come through stronger, or do we forge a different path?

In that spirit, I hope we learn the lessons of Bastille Day well.  

bonne Fête Nationale

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