France: Bastille Day

France celebrates its National Festival (fête nationale) on 14 July every year.

However, the widespread belief that it commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison is something of a misconception. While it’s true that the Bastille was stormed on 14 July 1789 (famously, there were only seven prisoners in there at the time, none of them of any great political significance), the occasion that’s celebrated is the so-called Fête de la Fédération, held on 1790 to mark the successful creation of a constitutional monarchy and what at the time was hoped to be the successful and peaceful conclusion of the revolution.

Unfortunately, thereafter it all turned nasty, with the Jacobin Terror succeeded by the Napoleonic Wars. Nevertheless, in 1880 it was decided that 14 July should be the national holiday. As the then President of the French Senate said at the time:

Do not forget that behind this 14 July, where victory of the new era over the ancien régime was bought by fighting, do not forget that after the day of 14 July 1789, there was the day of 14 July 1790. … This [latter] day cannot be blamed for having shed a drop of blood, for having divided the country. It was the consecration of unity of France. … If some of you might have scruples against the first 14 July, they certainly hold none against the second.

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