It happened today - July 14, 2015

Storming the BastilleToday is Bastille Day in France. Hip hip um guys… Is that all you’ve got?

See, the storming of the Bastille was not a great moment in history. Far from it. It was a key point when the repressive, sclerotic institutions of the Ancien Regime crumbled to be replaced by a far more effective, dynamic and tyrannical system of repression. There was almost no one there anyway; even the Marquis de Sade had been transferred to a lunatic asylum shortly before July 14. So I suppose it could have been worse. They could have stormed it to free the man who gave us the term “sadism”… and meant it.

Still, it’s pretty bad. The Bastille itself was originally built in 1370 part of Paris’s fortifications against the hated English. It worked, in a way. The English were driven from France in the Hundred Years’ War, the last major conflict France won without help from a stronger ally.

The Bastille was eventually converted to a stand-alone prison in which people where held without trial on the king’s say-so, a glorious benefit conferred upon the French people by successful resistance to the hated Anglo-Saxon way of doing things.

Habeas corpus? We don’t need no stinking habeas corpus. Nor did France think it needed Parliamentary institutions; the Estates General had not met for 175 years prior to 1789 and when it finally met it in the spring of that year too collapsed into dysfunction then demagogic tyranny.

As the revolutionary turmoil got worse in the following months, the governor of the Bastille, trying to avoid bloodshed, showed a gathering mob that had already fired on his soldiers that his cannons were not loaded. Pacifism scoring its typical triumph, this demonstration of weakness inspired rowdies to swarm in, so the governor ordered his men to fire in self-defence, the mob recoiled, got bigger, attacked again, he surrendered, and was lynched. Which evidently inspired the radicals and gave unstoppable momentum to liberté, égalité, fraternité, guillotine. Vive la Révolution!

It went from bad to Robespierre after that, to the point that Napoleon’s tyranny was a welcome relief. He was then crushed by the English “nation of shopkeepers” and the kings came back having, in Talleyrand’s (appropriately plagiarized) phrase “learned nothing and forgotten nothing”. Somebody remind me what we’re celebrating here?

Apparently Napoleon once called Talleyrand “a silk stocking filled with sh*t”… but Talleyrand laughed last, serving the Bourbons long after Napoleon was exiled, outliving the Corsican tyrant by 17 years and quipping that his former boss’s death “is not an event, it is a piece of news.” Mais revenons a nos Bastilles.

The point is that there’s nothing to celebrate about July 14, a brutal and pointless attack on a brutal and pointless place leading to brutal and pointless consequences. It resulted in a major rupture with the French past, such as it was, and remains divisive to this day.

Surely if de Gaulle was right that “La France ne peut être la France sans la grandeur” the French should have something better to celebrate, like the time the Anglosphere saved them from the Kaiser, the time the Anglosphere saved them from Hitler, the time the Anglosphere saved them from Napoleon, the time the Anglosphere…

No, I guess not. It would be asking a lot for them to celebrate Britain’s national day, which it doesn’t even have. But when the BBC did a poll about a decade ago, the top choice was June 15, the day Magna Carta was sealed. Which was worth doing and worth celebrating, unlike storming the Bastille.

I don’t know. Maybe celebrate a cheese instead. Apparently Talleyrand called Brie the king of cheese at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, prompting some wag to score at his expense, saying it was the only monarch he never betrayed. At least that’s funny.