by Roger Childs

The start of the French revolution

Bastille Day is France’s national holiday. On 14 July, 234 years ago, the infamous fortress and prison in Paris, known as the Bastille, was captured by revolutionaries. This event led to the fall of the autocratic government of Louis XVI, the start of the bloody French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon and ultimately the transformation of French government and society.

In mid-summer 1789, rising dissatisfaction with the oppressive royal government, the power of the church and the nobility, as well as high taxes, food shortages and growing poverty, led to an uprising in Paris. 

At dawn on July 14, a great crowd armed with muskets, swords, and assorted other weapons began to gather around the Bastille. They were soon joined by more angry Parisians. After holding back the mob for a short time, the Bastille’s military governor, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, realising his situation was hopeless raised the white flag of surrender. Launay and his men were taken into custody, the Bastille’s gunpowder and cannons were seized, and the seven prisoners were freed.  Incidentally a prisoner who had been moved out of the jail a few days before was the Maquis de Sade. The notorious aristocrat and philosopher, best known for his controversial, explicit writing, would later serve the revolutionary government with distinction.

A huge upheaval and a transformation 

Following the fall of the Bastille the middles classes set up a National Assembly which passed a series of reforms. It was decided to get rid of the monarchy and subsequently in 1793 the king was executed. Other European rulers vowed to crush the revolutionary government and restore the French monarchy. It was the threat of invasion from Austria that led to the country getting a new national anthem. 

(See below.)From 1789 to 1799 power in France passed through many hands cause immense disruption and much violence and bloodshed. Finally in 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and brought stability to the country.He brought in major reforms which transformed how the country was governed and how society was structured.

  • All people were equal before the law.
  • Feudal and church taxes were abolished.
  • The law was codified.
  • Careers were now open to all people regardless of their class.
  • The financing of government was reorganised.
  • A new system of local government was introduced.

A stirring anthem

Three years after the fall of the Bastille, the country would get a new national song. France was under threat of invasion in 1792, and with war having been declared on Austria, the Mayor of Strasbourg in Eastern France observed that the revolutionary armies needed a marching song. A captain in the engineers, Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, duly obliged and on 24 April 1792 composed LaMarseillaise.

However, because of its revolutionary and martial tone, full acceptance took time. The Revolutionary Convention accepted it, but it was later banned by Napoleon, and again by Louis XVIII in 1815. It was reinstated in 1830, but rejected again by Napoleon III in the 1850s.

Finally in 1879 LaMarseillaise was set in stone.It is an emotional experience to listen to it, as the performers always sing LaMarseillaise with great fervour and nationalistic passion. Our anthem by comparison is a dull, meaningless dirge. 

Click here to listen to Mireille Mathieu singing La Marseillaise, maybe with a hanky or tissue handy.