Bastille Day in France

July 14, 2018

On 14 July 1789, angry French peasants stormed the Bastille prison in Paris and freed all seven inmates, marking the beginning of the French Revolution – now known as Bastille (or French Independence) Day. As Conservatives who learn from history, we trace the events and excesses of the republican movement in marking this significant date in history.

The violent revolution was inspired by events in America – its revolutionary wars, Declaration of Independence, formation of a constitutional republic and first president, George Washington (from 30 April 1789). Revolutionaries were also aggrieved over clerical influence, the tax burden on the people, and royal waste & indebtedness.

The ten-year revolution saw France leap from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional republic, jumping over the initially favoured model that history now shows to be a sensible and moderate step, namely Constitutional Monarchy. But the restless, radical leftist Jacobins – led by the volatile Maximilien de Robespierre – couldn’t contain their revolutionary zeal and bloodthirsty desire for executions during their Reign of Terror (an episode that so excited and inspired Karl Marx, in his communist musings with Frederick Engels, in the mid-1800s).

After being in and out of monarchy, empire and a republic since the 1780s, France is now on to its Fifth Republic (see more information below). 

Starting and maintaining a Republic is not a costless and tumult-free exercise – just ask the French and their last 23 decades!

Mark Bastille Day by:

  • learning more about France's tumultuous modern history
  • reminding yourself of the Republican leanings of a prominent Australian, the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, recapping the Australian Republican debate of 1999, which he led and lost

  • enjoying some French nationalistic fervour as France plays Croatia in the 2018 FIFA World Cup final in Russia
  • savouring some French cheese or wine or a traditional French dish
  • watch the 2012 triple Academy Award winning film Les Misérables featuring the 'Friends of the ABC'
  • sharing this Action Plan post on social media with family, friends and those wary of radical movements in history

Excuse the French ... a brief journey through their five republics:

For the historically energetic, we provide some further detail on the French national story:

During the decade-long French revolution and its associated wars, the French monarchy was abolished (21 September 1792). The last absolute monarch of France, King Louis XVI, lost his head via guillotine for “high treason and crimes against the state” (21 January 1793) and  his wife, Queen Marie “let them eat cake” Antoinette, lost hers for high treason too (16 October 1793).  By contrast, Napoléon Bonaparte rose through the ranks to be a military general at 24 (1794) and eventually leader of France (as First Consul of The Consulate (French government) after his 1799 coup and then by making himself first “Emperor of the French” in 1804).

The French First Republic lasted until 1814 when Napoléon was first exiled (by the victorious Allies against restless, warring France) to Elba – a small Mediterranean island off the Tuscan coast of Italy. The First Republic was replaced by a constitutional (cf absolute) monarchy, with the conservative brothers of former Bourbon King, Louis XVI, restored to the throne (Louis XVIII to 1824, then Charles X to 1830 – known as the Bourbon Restoration).

Barring a short (100 day) period in 1815 – when Napoléon escaped exile, returned to France, resumed control of the military, staged war again and lost his final Battle of Waterloo against the Allies – the Bourbons retained the throne until the July Revolution of 1830.

This revolution saw Orléanist, Louis-Philippe, King of the French (cf of France) ascend to the throne, which he retained until the February Revolution of 1848. The February Revolution formed the French Second Republic, with the election of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte as President.

After engineering a coup in late 1851, this French leader declared himself Emperor Napoleon III of the Second Empire of France. This empire collapsed in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War (after Napoleon's capture by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan). It gave rise to the French Third Republic which lasted until 1940 when Nazi Germany defeated France in World War II.

After the war, liberated France got its Fourth Republic. But the Algiers crisis of 1958 (where French colony, Algeria, descended into civil war between separatists and French loyalists) saw the French government at home suspended and a new constitutional system again created.

This became the French Fifth Republic, founded and led by former French general, statesman and leader, Charles de Gaulle – firstly as Prime Minister (the second half of 1958) and then as President (until resigning in 1969 after losing a referendum in which he proposed more decentralisation). Incidentally, De Gaulle was a conservative in the traditionalist sense and staunch anti-Marxist.

The Fifth republic’s constitution has since been amended 24 times (most recently in 2008). By contrast, the Australian constitution underpinning our Constitutional Monarchy has only been amended 8 times (out of 44 propositions) since it was first signed in 1901.

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