Monday, July 13, 2009

Bastille Day: the French Pause for a Summer Picnic

How big a battle-inspired holiday becomes over time depends in large part on which turning point in an historical conflict a people chooses to isolate and celebrate. Take the French. You have to hand it to them. It’s July 14, Bastille Day. And the French see the birth of their nation in a jail break from a poorly-protected prison. And for that they annually take a day off and take part in military parades and fireworks and communal and family meals.

Talk about a calendar day as a political tool for nation-building.

The French didn’t come to framing their nation's birth in the storming of a prison overnight. Instead, the political left in France has long argued that the French Revolution got its start in 1789 with the Bastille break-out as that event saw the common people take their destiny into the their own hands and finally overthrow the Old Regime and the yoke of oppression.

And with that, the First Republic of France rose from the ruins of a toppled monarchy.

The political right, by contrast, maintains the French Revolution started well before July 14, 1789, with the increasing corruption of the Old Regime eventually causing the overthrow of the nobility by the emerging middle classes. Here the crowds gathering round the Bastille prison in July 1789 are but a sideshow that, while lending its name to France’s holiday with accompanying festivals and picnics, is well wide of the mark to explain the roots and results of the country’s defining revolution.

Whatever that protest from the right, the benefits to the left from focusing on the storming of the Bastille over all other stages of the French Revolution designates the festive holiday's much-needed hero: the common man, the sans culottes and peasantry ready rising up against corrupt power for justice and liberty.

We've seen retroactive hero worship elsewhere in this blog, with Moses and Napoleon, figures in their respective people's memory invested with superhuman powers that, as mere mortals, they may well have never claimed for themselves.

Martial holidays often spotlight not the outcome of an historic battle or struggle, but instead circle back to prior dramatic events for symbolism. Examples might be Paul Revere’s dramatic midnight ride, Daniel being saved in the lion’s den or Jesus Christ on the cross.

Here you get to, in Winston Churchill’s immortal summation of a victorious Egyptian campaign in 1942, “the end of the beginning,” a tipping point worthy of celebration and commemoration.

And July 14, 1789 is one of those days, and events. Indeed, Bastille Day has gone mainstream. Its roots date back to a year after the original event, with the Fête de la Fédération held on July 14, 1790. Official French celebrations in Paris had to wait until June 30, 1878, and the Third Republic of France on July 14, 1879 commemorated for the first time the prison break that was Bastille Day on July 14, 1789. And with military processions now a part of the festive celebrations, Benjamin Raspail introduced legislation on July 6, 1880 to make July 14 of that day officially Bastille Day.

On July 14, 1889, as it happened, 22,295 French mayors gathered in Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison with a giant feast that comprised Rouen duck loaf, chicken from Bresse and ballottine of pheasant.

It is said waiters had to ride bicycles to reach the mayors over four miles of tables.

Food-wise, July 14 has no prescribed food as, being a summer holiday, revelers generally take to the outdoors. So the French are loathe to eat food too fancy or time-consuming to make. Think French bistro and brasserie fare, which is fitting as the Bastille Day is widely believed to have given the modern-day French restaurant its start. After all, as the old regime nobility lost their heads or fled the country as the French Revolution gathered steam, their former cooks saw an opportunity to open restaurants and feed the masses.