Let Us Drink to la Bastille – and to Democracy!

Forget about fireworks, block parties, and picnics. July 14 – Bastille Day – has become the unsurpassed symbol of democracy across the world.
The first celebration of la fête nationale, on the Place de la Bastille in Paris, on July 14, 1880. © World History Archive

Just what exactly do we celebrate on July 14? In France, there will be plenty of fireworks, Chinese lanterns, and dancing; in the United States, under the name Bastille Day, and throughout the world, the day will be recognized in a thousand different ways. No one, anywhere, will be unaware of it. But what year are we talking about? When the deputies of the French National Assembly decreed in 1880 that July 14 was to be a national holiday, the political left was referring to the Storming of the Bastille in 1789, while the right thought of the Fête de la Fédération of July 14, 1790.

The representatives exited the assembly in great disarray without clearly deciding between Act I, a violent and anti-monarchical revolution (the governor of the Bastille lost his head, which was to become an unfortunate national custom during the Terror), and Act II, a moment of national reconciliation, a million French citizens streaming in from the provinces to gather in the rain at the Champs de Mars, where the Eiffel Tower now stands, united around King Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and representatives of the Catholic Church. Mass was said by Talleyrand, a deputy and a libertine bishop from Autun in Burgundy, and the instigator of this vast production. Stepping up to the altar, he was escorted by the Marquis de Lafayette, who was then head of the National Guard and known as the “hero of two worlds,” renowned for his contributions to the American Revolution. Talleyrand, himself no dupe, supposedly said to Lafayette: “Please don’t make me laugh.” Lafayette, a sincere disciple of liberty and of constitutional monarchy, unlike Talleyrand, must have truly believed in this national reconciliation. To each, then, their own July 14, a day that has become the unsurpassed symbol of democracy across the world.

On the day of the revolution, the Bastille held only seven prisoners: four forgers, two lunatics, and an incestuous nobleman – not a single political prisoner. The tipsy band of patriots who had taken this prison by storm – the weather was warm, and the wine was flowing in abundance – had no idea how their actions would change the face of the world. Ironically, these actors on the great stage of history were led in their assault by an actual thespian and professional poet with the pretty stage name of Fabre d’Eglantine. He was not to be fitly rewarded: He died on the scaffold in 1794.

Whatever you think of these incidents that made up this July 14, or these two July 14s, it remains that July 14 divides history into a before and an after. The old citadel whose traces remain inscribed on the Parisian cobblestones has become a metaphor, a representation of all the Bastilles, real or ideological, that are yet to be stormed. It is also a metaphor of untenable promises, of the promises of a new, more pleasant age. Of course, since 1880, France has come around to democracy, although it took a full century. And democracy has become the unsurpassable horizon of history for all nations.

This new era of democratic dominance seemed to peak another century later, when the Berlin Wall, a kind of modern Bastille, was torn down. We then thought that no other form of government could resist democracy, considered as the end of history. This was a time of lyrical illusion, renewed by the Arab Spring of 2010-2012. But we soon had to admit that the word was often just a disguise, an obligatory figure of speech rather than a legal reality – is the Republic of China, for example, republican and democratic? It claims to be; Mao Zedong liked to invoke the examples of the Bastille and of the 1871 Paris Commune. This is nonsense, of course, but there is consolation in reading in this Chinese constitution an homage paid to republican virtue by communist vice.

What appears more worrisome is the recent turn taken by democracies that were thought to be exemplary, and that now are straying further every day from the freedom they proclaim. There is Russia, which was democratic in 1991, but has ceased to be so since Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin, returning his people to ways that prevailed before the Bolshevik Revolution. India, which has been acclaimed since its independence in 1947 as “the largest democracy in the world,” is tipping towards theocracy under the iron rule of a new despot whose ambition seems to be to impose a single religion – authoritarian Hinduism – on a people that has traditionally allowed for the coexistence of local forms of Hinduism along with Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and other religions. In Europe, in shameful contradiction to our constitutional principles, the head of the Hungarian government has invented the baroque concept of an “illiberal democracy.” This new regime grants full powers to the present office-holder, eliminating all opposition in the judiciary, the media, the universities, and rival political parties. The Polish government is following Hungary’s lead, and so is Belarus. Is this not the regime dreamed of by the Trump followers who stormed the Capitol last January 6? Wherever we look, among all the civilizations we believed to be converted to democracy, the taste for freedom is evaporating while the authoritarian temptation is reborn, along with the temptation of identity politics. The two are linked and together constitute a reverse Bastille.

In France, as in the United States, we are observing the rise of a nationalist sentiment that embraces a double illusion: An end to cultural diversity and a strong man (or woman) who, with a wave of their hand, can crush the virus, unemployment, and inequality. This myth of enlightened despotism dates from the 18th century. But has history not taught us that despots are rarely enlightened, and that great men can create great disasters? Democracy, on the other hand, is always a work in progress; but from its institutionalized disorder, its controversies channeled by laws, is born the decisive progress that improves our lives and bestows the right to “the pursuit of happiness” formulated by Thomas Jefferson and embraced by Saint-Just: “Happiness is a new idea in Europe.” This year, more than ever, it seems to me that the Storming of the Bastille and its commemoration should inspire an essential reflection on the virtues of liberal democracy as opposed to illiberal mystification.

On July 14, 1790, Lafayette remained unmoved by Talleyrand’s foolishness, and was right to not laugh. After all, the Bastille is a serious matter. I’ll drink to that!

Article published in the July 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.