Late Thursday night, a crowd had gathered around Nice’s Promenade des Anglias, watching the last embers of a firework display, when a truck deliberately ran over them.
As France mourns the 84 dead and more than 100 injured, many critically, president Francois Hollande said the country has been attacked by terrorists on its national day, “the 14th of July, the symbol of freedom.”
Bastille Day, which France celebrates as its national day, has a bloody history. It commemorates the fall of the Bastille prison to anti-monarchist forces in 1789, an event of great importance in the French Revolution. When the hassled French king, Louis XVI, asked a duke in his court if the storming of Bastille was a revolt, he famously replied, “No, sire, a revolution.”
The summer of 1789 was one of discontent for the French proletariat, and the winds of revolution were already gathering. The fear that the monarchy was trying to trample dissent led the citizenry to band together and march to Bastille, a fortress famous for holding political prisoners, to loot their stores of gunpowder and ammunition.
The battle that ensued between the prison guard and the people resulted in a bloodbath, with at least a hundred attackers killed and the prison’s military governor publicly beheaded.
Bastille was a crucial link in a chain of events that led to the fall of the monarchy, the execution of the king and his queen, Mary Antoinette, and the establishment of a republic in France.
Literature and poetry of the time immortalised the French Revolution, enamoured with the idea that it was the harbinger of a better tomorrow. As an idealistic, bright-eyed 19-year old in 1789, poet William Wordsworth was thrilled with the idea of revolution, writing in The Prelude, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven.”
But it is Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, published 70 years after the event, which captured the brutality and the chaos that inevitably accompanies any churning, rightly summing it up as “The best of times, the worst of times”.
Though the birthing of the revolution was bloody, France commemorates the day less for the storming of Bastille and more for what it symbolised. Bastille Day is a celebration of the three tenets that fuelled and formed the basis of the French republic -- the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Before the day was adopted as a national holiday in 1880, Henri Martin, chairman of the French Senate at the time had said in his address: “This day cannot be blamed for having shed a drop of blood, for having divided the country. It was the consecration of the unity of France..”
A military parade, feasts and firework displays, patriotic renditions of the national anthem characterise the holiday. But the terror attack has ensured any future celebrations of Bastille Day will be tinged with mourning, reminding France of what it lost.