French Language Blog

Why The French Must Dump Bastille Day Posted by on Jun 20, 2011 in Vocabulary

If you are the sort of person who does not blindly celebrate dates just because others do, here’s for you a résumé of Bastille Day’s “inside story”: Contrary to the prevailing popular belief, “Bastille Day” marked a disastrous hijacking of the French Revolution, operated at the behest of an often unsuspected hostile foreign power: Great Britain, whom the French, as it turned out, didn’t nickname “la perfide Albion” for no good reason!

The truly “historical date” worthy of celebration took place only a few weeks prior to the bloody day of July 14th, 1789: On June 20th, when Lafayette led other authentic French patriots to swear the so-called “Serment de jeu de Paume” (the “Tennis Court Oath.”)

Demandez à n’importe qui au hasard (ask anyone randomly): c’est quoi le 14 Juillet (what is the 14 of July)?”, and you’re likely to hear the answer “c’est la fête nationale!” (it’s the national celebration!) Mais encore? (What else?) “It’s to celebrate a major event in l’histoire de Francela prise de la Bastille(the storming of the Bastille.)”

And for you, personally, what does the 14 juillet stand for?

  • La fête et la musique dans les rues de France?
  • Le défilé du quatorze juillet?

The question one should ask is: What happened exactement in that particular day of July 14th, 1789?
And why should it be relevant to all of us, today, more than two centuries ago?

Furthermore, does the importance of this day solely concern the French and their own history?

To help us bring an initial answer to these questions, and to put matters into their accurate perspective historique, we will turn to an eyewitness of the storming of the Bastille, a brilliant, towering figure of French literature, Chateaubriand.

Referring to the dramatic events that took place on that fateful day of July 14th, 1789, Chateaubriand identifies one -quote- “lying and cynical revealer of the corruption of the upper classes, whom he holds directly responsible for the horrendous massacres he witnessed that day.

But before we go further, and again, for the sake of clear perspective, it is important to remember that the French Revolution came in the aftermath of another major revolution outre-atlantique (on the other side of the Atlantic), namely la Révolution américaine, when the French, through another figure marquante of French literature, Beaumarchais, as well as the Marquis de Lafayette [picture below], entre autres (among others),brought a crucial and thoroughly decisive assistance to the American troops in their war against la Grande Bretagne. 

The American Revolution a donné naissance (has given birth) to les États-Unis, a few years only before the beginning of the French Revolution. With the drafting of its remarkable Constitution of the United States, it was to yield une profonde influence on the French minds and hearts, encouraging a group of French friends of the returning Lafayette (who named one of his sons George Washington) to follow the footsteps of les Pères fondateurs des États-Unis (the Founding Fathers of the United States.) Their set objective was to create their own constitutional form of government: une Constitution française that would mirror the same principles upheld by the American Constitution, sans effusion de sang (with no bloodshed.)

Thus were born the idea and ideals of the French Revolution: A peaceful change into a Republican form of government, inspired directly from the new Republican model of the United States. 

Unfortunately -and this is a very important point to keep in mind- the leadership of la Grande Bretagne, which suffered the recent loss of its North American colonies at the hands of Washington and Lafayette, was understandably not too thrilled at the prospect of seeing le modèle américain emulated anywhere else, which poised a deadly threat to the vast hegemony of its global colonial Empire, “sur lequel le Soleil ne se couche jamais” (“on which the sun never sets.”)

The threat of anti-colonial “republican proliferation” spreading to France from the newborn United States was deemed very alarming, as the highest circles of the British establishment perceived it as “lying in their own backyard.” Located only a 150 miles apart through la Manche (the English Channel), the two nations maintained an age-old rivalité (rivalry) on the cultural, economic, and geopolitical levels.

One can therefore picture, *dans les grandes lignes* (in the broad lines), without a risk of oversimplification, two groupes d’acteurs déterminants (determining groups of actors) who stood at the forefront of la Révolution française:

  • Le groupe du modèle américain: Centered around the veteran hero of the American Revolution, Lafayette, and others such as the renown scientist Lavoisier [picture below], an outstanding figure in the field of chemistry, whom you may recall from his famous maxim: Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme” (nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”), later to be known as the “law of the conservation of mass.
  • Le groupe antimodèle américain (or pro-britannique): The leader incontesté of this group was none other than the dear cousin of the King Louis XVI, the Duc d’Orléans [picture below], who never concealed his feverish anglomanie, especiallyafter sojourning in England for a while, where he is known to have fallen under the through control of British Minister Nathaniel Parker-Forth (Parker-Forth, in one coïncidence amusante, is the great-great-great-grand father of News Corporation-owner Rupert Murdoch, of which the “French-loving” Fox News is a subsidiary.)

Not surprisingly, then, the Duke nurtured obvious ambitions to replace his cousin, the French King, by any necessary means. Pour cette raison (for this reason), he specifically devoted his Palais-Royal at the heart of Paris to further his schemes, turning it into a “jacobin” nest of intrigues, and enlisting the services of three Swiss figures, whom we shall call “les 3 SUiSSES(“The 3 Swiss.”)

Those “3 SUiSSES” are almost forgotten today, despite the fact that they played a key role in the dramatic deviation of the French Revolution, namely the shift from a movement initiated by the pro-American constitution model, based on the Platonic concept of la république (the Republic), to an unfortunate, bloodthirsty campaign, which eventually led to what historians dubbed la Grande Terreur, often resulting in the beheading of its very own instigators by way of the guillotine —Eventually not sparing its own “godfather”, namely the Duke d’Orléans himself.

The “3 SUiSSES” in question are, namely: Necker (father of the famous Madame de Staël), Marat, and le Baron de Besenval.

 Notwithstanding the flood of vehement attacks unleashed by the Swiss journalist Marat, the Lafayette group gained the upper hand over the Duc d’Orléans and his Swiss partners in crime, achieving a major victory only a few weeks before the storming of the Bastille was scheduled to take place, through the establishment of the first Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly), as a direct result of what ought to be celebrated as the true French national day, namely the “Serment du jeu de paume.

Serment du jeu de paume” (known in English as the “Tennis Court Oath”), held le 20 Juin 1789 (June 20th, 1789) favored the establishment of the first French National Constituent Assembly, of which Lafayette was the Vice-President

Having lost political momentum, especially after le Roi (the King) Louis XVI dismissed Necker, the “economic hitman” among the three Swiss stooges, three days* before le 14 juillet, from his post of contrôleur général des finances, le Duc d’Orléansdesperately needed an urgent gambit move: Setting the stage for the Baron de Besenval.

The Swiss Baron was in charge of the GardesSuisses, whose function was to ensure the safety of la population parisienne. Instead, he organized the storming of the Bastille, and ordered the killing of several innocent bypassing people in the most random fashion, with the clear intent of stirring up enough social unrest, the main objective of which was strongarming le Roi (the King) into recalling Necker.

That is, unfortunately, exactly what happened, seulement trois jours plus tard (only three days later.)   

To come back to Chateaubriand, the great French writer did not use very flattering words to describe the sinister Baron. In his “Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe” (page 276), where he tells the story of how he, as a young man, witnessed “live” the storming of the Bastille, he portrays the Swiss Baron in the following terms:

"Le baron de Besenval, 
révélateur menteur et cynique des corruptions de la haute société,
mouche du coche des puérilités de la vieille monarchie expirante, ce
lourd baron compromis dans l'affaire de la Bastille, sauvé par M.
Necker et par Mirabeau, uniquement parce qu'il était Suisse: quelle
misère! Qu'avaient à faire de pareils hommes avec de pareils
événements? Quand la Révolution eut grandi, elle abandonna avec dédain
les frivoles apostats du trône: elle avait eu besoin de leurs vices,
elle eut besoin de leurs têtes: elle ne méprisait aucun sang."


Translated by A. T. De Mattos in English as:

"The Baron de Besenval, the lying and cynical revealer
of the corruption of the upper classes, the fly on the wheel
of the puerilities of the expiring old monarchy; that ponderous
baron, compromised in the affair of the Bastille, and saved by 
M. Necker and Mirabeau only because he was a Swiss: the disgrace of it!
What had such men to do with such events? 
When the Revolution had attained its full height, it scornfully 
abandoned these frivolous apostates from the throne: 
it had needed their vices, it now needed their heads; 
it disdained no blood."

En guise de conclusion (as a conclusion), the 14th of July essentially marked a tragic coup d’état led by the Duc d’Orléans and his cohort of the “3 SUiSSES“, and by extension, in favor of the colonial empire of la Grande Bretagne, which was actively prescribing their marche à suivre (procedure), thus deviating the French Revolution off the course of its truly Republican initiators, Lafayette and the pro-American constitution model forces, towards the radical trajectoire jacobine, in the midst of which the French Duke ended up losing -quite littéralement– his head.

The jacobin hijacking of the French Revolution in turn gave rise to the horrors of la Grande Terreur, and paved the way for the transformation of France into un empire colonial (a colonial empire), at the image of Great Britain, starting with the Napoléon Bonaparte era, well into the 20th century.

The French today should therefore be proud of the Lafayette’s 20 juin 1789, when their first Assemblée Nationale saw the light, and not the tragic date which occurred a few weeks later, which marked le triomphe temporaire of the overly ambitieux Duc d’Orléans and his “3 SUiSSES” stooges.

* Further reading: Its publication was set to coincide with the French Revolution’s bicentennial anniversary: French historian Olivier Blanc’s “Les Hommes de Londres” (meaning “The London Men”, a pun referring to “the Shadow Men” of the French Revolution) is highly recommended


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