Warning. You can wish someone Joyeux Noël, Joyeuse Saint-Valentin, or Joyeuses Pâques,
but you don’t say “Happy Bastille Day” …
Or Bastille Day at all. In France, the national holiday is called la Fête Nationale française (abbreviated Fête Nat. on calendars) or more simply le 14 Juillet. So, I asked Isabelle and Jean-Luc, how come English speakers call it Bastille Day and the French DON’T? This apparently innocent question opened up a can of worms (which the French would call “un guêpier”—a hornet’s nest—or “un sac de noeuds”—a bag of knots). My friends had lots of theories on the matter. Although nobody seems to know who first used the expression in English, they both thought a reasonable explanation is that French and non-French alike recognize the taking of the Bastille as the beginning of the French Revolution, and a symbolic victory for “les droits de l’homme” (human rights).
On the other hand, the actual date, July 14, doesn’t mean much to a foreigner, especially when stacked with all the other French fêtes known only by their dates (1er Mai, 8 Mai, 11 Novembre etc.). Which leads me to an ASIDE: the names of months generally are not capitalized in French, but if they refer to a “fête” (holiday), they are capitalized because they’re considered proper names. Fêtes named for saints are feminine even if the saint was male, because it’s “la fête de…,” thus LA Saint-Valentin (Valentine’s Day). Most fêtes identified by their dates are laïques (lay, nonreligious), and commemorate solemn historic occasions (battles won, wars ending, etc.), whereas religious holidays usually have real names: Noël (Christmas), Pentecôte (Whitsunday), Pâques (Easter). Even though France is un état laïc (a country with separation of church and state), it’s striking that Noël, Pâques, la Pentecôte, l’Ascension, l’Assomption and la Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) are all national holidays. In fact, compared to the United States, the French have an amazing number of legal holidays, eleven in all, four of which usually fall in May, which explains why you can never get anything done in May.
Now back to what I was saying… Fête Nat. is probably called “Bastille Day” in English because “Bastille” is a brief, concise and unambiguous reference to the storming of the prison of the Bastille in Paris on 14 July 1789, by 954 men and one woman, armed with pikes and miscellaneous firearms, yelling “Tous à la Bastille !” (Everybody out of the pool).
The actual event was a little disappointing. After a short battle, the nonmilitary governor in charge of the fortress, by then mostly being used as a hospital, simply gave up, whereupon the mob gratuitously killed him. When the victors finally made their way down to the “dungeons,” which turned out to be spacious, almost luxurious, they discovered there were only seven prisoners left in the place, all guilty, it would seem. Four were counterfeiters, still on trial, two were considered to be insane, and the last, a nobleman, perhaps criminal, had been locked up at the request of his family. The others, including the Bastille’s most famous inmate, the Marquis de Sade, had been transferred somewhere else shortly before. Disappointed, the conquerors dragged an old suit of armour and a printing press out into the courtyard, to be displayed as instruments of torture.
Despite rumours to the contrary, the Bastille was not ripped stone by stone from its foundations by the angry crowd. Some time after these events, a contractor named Palloy was hired to dismantle it. Most of the stones were recycled to build a bridge, the Pont de la Concorde. He made money on the side by selling rings set with chips of stone from the walls and patriotic medallions hammered out of the fortress’s iron chains.
So why did the populace attack the Bastille? Because the Bastille symbolized Royal tyranny — capitalized, like le Roi, the King. (Or in the US, the President). Ancien Régime (pre-Revolutionary) France was an absolute, at times despotic, monarchy, ruled en l’occurrence (in the event, i.e. at that time) by Louis XVI. Le Roi could arbitrarily lock up anyone he wanted, whenever he wished, without any stated reason, by simply creating a “lettre de cachet.” These notorious letters were a particularly French phenomenon, thus the term is untranslatable, although cachet in this context means the Royal seal. What most often happened was, a lettre de cachet would be written by any one of a variety of monarchic flunkies, usually without the King’s knowledge, and once stamped with the King’s seal, such a letter could decree anything at all, bypassing both law and custom. The most infamous lettres de cachet ordered, without trial, the indefinite imprisonment or exile of the individual named therein. The verb describing this behaviour? Embastiller (to put into the Bastille), of course.
Even in Paris today, you frequently hear “Tous à la Bastille !” when there’s une manifestation populaire or more commonly, une manif’. Careful, warns Isabelle. Do not translate this as “a popular manifestation.” The noun would be “demonstration,” or even “a march”, and it’s populaire in the sense of du peuple, i.e., a street protest by almost anybody, usually dissidents who feel their constitutional rights have been violated. Marchers can be working-class or white-collar, Catholics or Muslims, teachers or students, civil servants or the unemployed, left (or right)-wing, for animal rights or against gay marriage, or virtually anything else. Recently, this battle cry has been heard in support of “les sans-papiers” (the “without papers,” i.e., illegal immigrants) and at a general strike against raising the retirement age in France from 60 to 62. U.S. citizens are more grégaires (sheep-like, not gregarious), having accepted the advance from age 65 to the current 67.5 without so much as a baa.
Another caveat: at the Place de la Bastille, nothing is left of the original Bastille. If you want to see some remains, one corner of the stone foundation has been relocated to the side of Boulevard Henri IV, rive droite (on the right back of the Seine), about half a mile away from the Place, across the street from the Bibiliothèque de l’Arsénale, at Métro Sully Morland. It’s in a quiet park with shade trees and benches.
So many things to get wrong. I was astonished to learn that officially, le 14 Juillet does NOT celebrate the 1789 storming of the Bastille. Officially it commemorates la Fête de la Fédération, organized on the same day in 1790, one year later. That night, at the instigation of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, who also attended, Paris partied on the Champ de Mars to celebrate “the unity of the nation,” the success of a peaceful revolution and the principle of a constitutional monarchy. Bad guess. The revolution continued, ever more violent, until Napoléon Bonaparte became Premier Consul nine years later in 1799. Nonetheless, the Fête de la Fédération was renamed la Fête Nationale française in 1880. Most French people don’t seem to know this, though Isabelle did. But if you ask anybody else, they’ll tell you le 14 Juillet commemorates la prise de la Bastille (the capture of the Bastille). Jean-Luc, too, is surprised to learn it’s not true. “On nous a bourré le mou avec ça dès l’école primaire,” he says.
Quoi ? Mou, it turns out, means the lungs of a butchered animal, and the expression bourrer le mou à quelqu’un means to force-feed someone false information, over a long period of time. But, cautions Jean-Luc, the expression is populaire to say the least, leaning steeply towards vulgaire, since bourrer (to stuff ) has all the same connotations as in English (sexual, over-feeding) plus alcoholic, as in se bourrer (to get sloshed, wasted or plastered) and bourrer de coups (to beat someone up). Mou (adj. soft) can be associated to la cervelle (the brains you eat, as opposed to le cerveau, the brain you think with).
No matter. Like the rest of us, the French are always happy to have un jour chômé (a paid vacation day). Sometimes they manage to make le 14 Juillet last for days and days. First, le bal du 14 Juillet (dancing in the streets) is usually held on the night of July 13 instead of the 14th, since people may have to go to work early on the morning of July 15. Although in some places there’s also dancing again on the 14th. In villages and neighbourhoods all over France, the casernes des pompiers (fire stations) organize free dancing in their courtyards, hiring bands or DJs, stringing lights, selling food and drink, and setting up tables and chairs under the buckeye trees (sculpted in the French manner, with scalped and tortured branches). Everybody dances, from grannies to toddlers, and happy couples form — for the evening or forever. This is a vast improvement over the huge balls organized in les places publiques, notably la Place de la Bastille, where the constant explosions of pétards (firecrackers) tossed under the dancers’ feet by hormone-driven adolescents cause panic, temporary deafness and sometimes serious injury.
Next, early on the morning of July 14, there’s a défilé militaire (parade), with soldiers marching to La Marseillaise. The French hymne national (national anthem) is moderately blood-thirsty, but at least people can sing it, unlike our own Star Spangled Banner, which is also pretty gory once you get to the verses nobody knows. In Paris, the French Air Force loudly buzzes the Champs Elysées, spewing exhaust smoke tinted bleu-blanc-rouge (the colors of the French as well as the U.S. flag. What we call the “red, white and blue” en Amérique, becomes the “blue, white, red” in France). Before dark, thousands of Parisiens arrive at the Champ de Mars in time to picnic on the grass and crane their necks past la Tour Eiffel (pronounced like the letters: F.L.) to look at le feu d’artifice du 14 Juillet—the spectacular fireworks set off from the Trocadéro, across the Seine. If le 14 Juillet happens to fall mid-week, you can also faire le pont (literally: make the bridge) and party all the days from the weekend before, or until the weekend after, depending on which end of the week the holiday falls.
One final warning! The French are amused or shocked or both, by the Stars and Stripes dangling from American houses. They consider such flag-waving blatant chauvinisme (nationalism). As my friends remind me, “on n’est pas si patriotes que ça” (We’re not as patriotic as you Americans). Although when the French are in the finals for the World Soccer Cup, the bleu-blanc-rouge appears draped on balconies and bodies, painted on walls, stairs and on people’s cheeks all over France.
But for most of the country, La Fête Nat. itself is just another vacation day. In short, you can wish someone Joyeux Noël, Joyeuse Saint-Valentin, Joyeuses Pâques, and so on, but you don’t wish people Happy Bastille Day, in either English or French. Certain people aren’t happy about Bastille Day at all. When the national holiday first came into existence, a few noble families, including that of the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, flatly refused to recognize it. To them, it symbolized the decapitation of some of their favorite relatives. Even today, one or two Royalists are still waiting for the Monarchy to be restored.
©Julia Frey, 2018