La Fête Nationale – le quatorze juillet – Bastille Day

Against a background of national grain shortages and bankruptcy, a meeting of the First and Second Estates (the clergy and nobility) of French society with the Third Estate (comprising the vast majority of the population) was called in May 1789.

Frustrated that their calls for equality, relief for the poor and proportional representation had gone unheard, in June the representatives of the Third Estate split away to meet in a Versailles tennis court, where they formed their own voting bloc, the National Assembly, and declared revolt against the monarchy. In July the King’s dismissal of his competent and popular Finance Minister, Jacques Necker, triggered fears that royal force might be used against the people of Paris. What followed was the first significant step in the French Revolution.

The storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 marked the first decisive intervention of ordinary people against the ancien regime, following on from the revolt of the nobility against the King, and that of the bourgeoisie at the Tennis Court.

The abolition of the gloomy stone symbol of despotism that for centuries had loomed overthe Paris skyline was thus an event to be commemorated as a triumph of spontaneous collective will. To this day, 14 July is observed in France as the anniversary of modern France.

The Bastille was a medieval prison, used by monarchs to contain citizens arrested by lettre de cachet, a royal warrant increasingly despised as a symbol of arbitrary power. In 1789 the Bastille housed a small handful of inmates, some of whom were insane or detained at therequest of relatives. But the lettre de cachet was not the cause of the 14 July uprising, as has already been observed.

Told that the Bastille housed stockpiles of gunpowder owned by the State, the workers of Paris rushed to the prison in the furniture-making district of Saint-Antoine to arm themselves. There they found the prison’s Governor, Bernard-Rene Marquis de Launay, protected only by a small garrison. Quickly overwhelmed by angry crowds who scaled the walls and lowered the drawbridge, de Launay ordered his men to fire and by doing so signed his own death warrant once the crowd had successfully stormed the prison.

The Storming of the Bastille and the Arrest of its Governor de Launay – Versailles, musee national du chateau

The 650 men and women of this great Revolutionary day in the Republican Calendar (known as a journee) were later honoured as Vainqueurs and heroes of the people. The prison was subsequently torn down. Some of its fabric was used to manufacture mementos, which were distributed to every corner of France. The remaining materials were recycled in the construction of the Pont de la Concorde.

With political ideology penetrating every aspect of public life, the decorative arts underwent a transformation. New emblems were employed affirming the civic values that were to provide the basis for the new France. Phrygian bonnets or caps (liberty caps), lictors fasces, the red, white and blue tricolour, the set square symbolising equality, the sacles of justice, military trophies all spoke forcefully of the new values espoused by the French nation. During the Revolution and the Terror the liberty cap was worn both by adherents of social change and those who feared condemnation for their association with the ancient regime. Such symbols were accompanied by slogans such as Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite ou la mort which served as reminders that failuire to comply with the new virues could have fatal consequences.

Revolutionary Poster (Affiche revolutionnaire- 1791 – 95 musee des Arts decoratifs, Paris)

Yet within these requirements of the citizens of the Revolutionary France was an affirmation of rights that regrettably fell by the wayside more than once as the Revolution progressed to the Terror, the Directory, the Consulate and the new Empire .Like the American Revolution, the French Revolution had its fundamental document, created after the outbreak of violence

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (French: Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen) defines the individual and collective rights of all the estates of the realm as universal. Influenced by the doctrine of “natural right”, the rights of man are held to be universal: valid at all times and in every place, pertaining to human nature itself.

The concepts in the Declaration come from the philosophical and political principles of the Age of Enlightenment, such as individualism, the social contract as theorized by the French philosopher Rousseau, and the separation of powers espoused by the Baron de Montesquieu. As can be seen in the texts, the French declaration is heavily influenced by the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, and by Enlightenment principles of human rights, some of which it shares with the U.S. Declaration of Independence which preceded it (4 July 1776). Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was at the time in France as a U.S. diplomat,and was in correspondence with members of the French National Constituent Assembly. James Madison’s proposal for a U.S. Bill of Rights was adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives on 21 August 1789, 5 days before the French declaration. Considering the speed at which information crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 18th century, it is clear that the French declaration was not inspired by its US counterpart.

The declaration is in the spirit of what has come to be called natural law, which does not base itself on religious doctrine or authority.

The declaration defines a single set of individual and collective rights for all men. Influenced by the doctrine of natural rights, these rights are held to be universal and valid in all times and places. For example, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.”They have certain natural rights to property, to liberty and to life. According to this theory the role of government is to recognize and secure these rights. Furthermore government should be carried on by elected representatives.

At the time of it was written, the rights contained in the declaration were only awarded to men. Furthermore, the declaration was a statement of vision rather than reality. The declaration was not deeply rooted in either the practice of the West or even France at the time. The declaration emerged in the late 18th Century out of war and revolution. It encountered opposition as democracy and individual rights were frequently regarded as synonymous with anarchy and subversion. The declaration embodies ideals and aspirations towards which France pledged to struggle in the future

The text

Approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789


1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.

6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.

7. No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.

8. The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.

9. As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner’s person shall be severely repressed by law.

10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.

11. The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.

12. The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.

13. A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.

14. All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.

15. Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.

16. A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.

17. Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified.

Les Droits de l’homme

The IT Countrey Justice

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