Monday, July 14, 2008

Happy Bastille Day!

Bastille Day is the French national holiday, celebrated on July 14 each year. In France, it is called “Fête Nationale” (National Holiday), but more commonly just “Quatorze Juillet” (July 14). It commemorates the 1790 Fête de la Fédération, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, an event regarded as a symbol of the uprising of the modern French nation.

Festivities in Paris are held in the morning on July 14, the largest on the Ave. Champs-Élysées in the presence of the President of the Republic. A parade begins at the Arc de Triomphe with military cadets, then other infantry troops, then motorized troops (tanks and stuff!), followed by a fly-by of fighter jets. In recent times military units from France’s allies have been invited to join the parade (West Point cadets participated in 2002).

Also, the students and cadets of the École Polytechnique traditionally pull off some sort of major prank – all in good fun. The president used to give an interview to the press, discussing the situation of the country, recent events and projects for the future (sort of a State of the Union message to the press). Current president Nicolas Sarkozy (elected in 2007) has chosen not to continue this custom, but he follows tradition in hosting a garden party at the Palais de l'Elysée, the official residence of the president of France (just off the Champs-Élysées).

Bastille Day always falls during the Tour de France bicycle race and is traditionally a day on which French riders try to take a stage victory for France, making greater effort than they might otherwise.

The French Constitution grants the President authority to pardon offenders, and since 1991 the President has pardoned many petty crimes on Bastille Day (mostly traffic violations). President Sarkozy has declined to continue this practice, likely because the popular Mayor of Paris has greatly increased fines for traffic violations in an effort to ease the often unmanageable traffic congestion in Paris. Many feel that there will likely be a square off between Sarkozy and Socialist Party Mayor Bertrand Delanoë in the next French presidential election. My money is on Delanoë, currently the most popular politician in France (Sarkozy’s popularity has plummeted – but the winds of politics are fickle).

On June 30, 1878, a festival had been organized in Paris to honor the Republic (that event was immortalized by a painting by Monet)

Claude Monet: Fête de 30 Juin, 1878

On July 14, 1879, another festival took place, including a military review in Longchamp (a famous horse racing course). “Throughout France,” as Le Figaro reported on the 16th, “people celebrated and feasted to honor the Bastille.” July 14 was soon declared a national holiday, and Bastille Day has been celebrated officially since 1880. Vive la France!

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