Sometimes there are days which rock the world. In July 1788, bowing to mounting pressure from reformers, king Louis XVI of France called for a meeting of the Estates General, a representative assembly which had last met in 1614.
Months were spent bogged down in debates about procedure between the different estates (first was nobles, second clergy and third property-owners) and long lists of grievances, including demands for a written constitution as well as an elected assembly.
On June 17, 1789, the third estate over-rode these debates and began the French Revolution by declaring itself alone a National Assembly. Locked out of their meeting hall, the third estate moved to a tennis court and took a solemn oath that they would not disband until a constitution had been drafted. Louis, the nobility and the assembly exchanged ever more heated arguments.
By the beginning of July, Paris was in ferment. While rich folk bickered, the price of bread soared. In August 1788, 50 per cent of a peasant or urban worker's income went on buying bread. By July 1789, this figure had risen to 80 per cent. Rumours that nobles were plotting against the national assembly spread. On July 14, several hundred Parisians, mostly women, gathered in front of the Bastille, medieval fortress and symbol of the king's absolute power.
They stormed the prison looking for weapons and gunpowder; 98 were killed and 73 wounded. Far from containing a cache of arms, the Bastille held just seven prisoners, one of whom considered himself to be Julius Caesar. Although the Bastille contained no hoped-for weapons, its fall served, and continues to serve, as a great symbol of the Revolution itself. To many, it seemed there was now no turning back. Directly after the fall of the Bastille, the peasants rioted, attacking food convoys, refusing taxes, destroying manor houses and all records of feudal obligations. This grand peur (great fear) was sparked by a rumour that the aristos had plotted to kill the peasants, a rumour that worked to the advantage of the assembly, which on August 4 drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. On the same day the aristocrats surrendered their special privileges by decree. Feudalism was over.
Louis accepted neither the decrees of August 4 nor the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. By October he was a prisoner and by the end of January 1793 he was dead. The sans-culottes, not represented in the assembly, overturned the moderate reformers and sent 17,000 more people to the guillotine.
Meantime, the Declaration had spread through France and was translated into every major European language. It symbolised the new French social order. "The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression."
In 1880, July 14 was declared a public holiday and the national motto of "liberte, egalite, fraternite" was restored, after the fall of the Third Empire. Nowadays, the day is marked with a solemn military parade which fills the Champs Elysees in the presence of the head of state. The school year ends and each commune (municipality) holds a dance with fireworks. All that remains of the great stone castle is a paving stone in the huge expanse of the Place de la Bastille.
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