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The capture of the Bastille theJuly 14, 1789, militarily insignificant event but of considerable symbolic significance, is a milestone in the French Revolution. That day, the city of Paris was shaken by a series of riots (which had started several days ago), and marked by symbolic acts. The storming of the Bastille, the most important, in any case the one that has been remembered and subsequently exploited, even if it means playing on the facts. Chronicle of this day, celebrated a year later on the feast of the Federation, which became a national holiday in 1880.
A troubled context in Paris (May-July 1789)
Since the opening of the Estates General in May 1789, France - and Paris in particular - has lived in an increasingly unstable period. The Oath of the Jeu de Paume (June 20, 1789), the proclamation of the Constituent Assembly on July 9, confirmed the momentum that would become revolutionary. But it is above all the dismissal of Necker on July 11 that ignites the powder.
The Parisian bourgeoisie has been organized since June 1789 within the framework of the electoral assemblies to the States General, and it begins to rise up with the people the day after Necker's dismissal, judged by the royal power as "condescending towards the meeting of the States General ". In fact, the people of Paris fear that Necker's ousting will cause prices to skyrocket, especially of bread. However, the economic context is already extremely tense and food shortages are not rare. In addition, the choice of Louis XVI to replace Necker by Baron de Breteuil raised fears of a coup, especially since troops have surrounded Paris since the end of June.
The troubles in Paris thus began on July 12, 1789. In the Tuileries gardens, the dragoons of Prince de Lambesc had to charge demonstrators assisted by the French National Guard. The stock exchange closed, a bourgeois guard was put in place at the Town Hall, despite the reservations of the provost of merchants Jacques de Flesselles. On July 13, the revolt spread throughout Paris. We must now find weapons ...
The rioters seize the Invalides
In the late afternoon, on July 13, the rioters sent a delegation to Les Invalides to demand arms. Faced with the governor's refusal, a crowd of tens of thousands of Parisians marched on the Invalides on the morning of July 14. Despite the cannons that are supposed to defend it, the square does not respond and the people come in force to get their hands on all possible weapons, in particular rifles. More than forty thousand rifles, but also cannons, were taken from Les Invalides.
The crowd then put pressure on the delegates from the Town Hall to obtain gunpowder from the governor of the Bastille, de Launay. A delegation is sent to the fortress.
On the eve of its capture, the Bastille is an impressive fortress but little filled with prisoners, nor very defended in troops, if not by a regiment of Swiss. On the other hand, it has a substantial artillery (fifteen guns) which can allow it to hold a siege for a certain time.
However, Governor de Launay does not appear to be eager to defend her. The representatives of the people come to the Bastille to demand weapons and especially gunpowder. Their initial intention was not to take the fortress. However, oddly enough, it is during the morning negotiations that the tone and the tension rise. The governor, who initially ignored the capture of the Invalides, agreed to withdraw his cannons, accused of threatening the people of Paris. Then his hesitation in the negotiations began to agitate the crowd coming from the Invalides, and we began to demand no longer arms but the surrender of the fortress.
The Bastille opens fire
It is with some confusion that the first blood is shed. The crowd around the Bastille has grown in size, and especially more and more offensive at the start of the afternoon. De Launay had to withdraw into the fortress itself, leaving the first two outer courtyards to the rioters. Looting, including that of the Governor's Hotel, began.
As demonstrators tried to move further, it appears that the garrison opened fire, possibly as a deterrent. However, we are starting to count deaths among the attackers, and anger escalates further.
Governor de Launay is called a traitor, and negotiations are increasingly difficult and confusing, with the crowd getting out of control. Launay panics and orders fire to deter the attackers. He gets the opposite ...
The storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789)
Coming from Les Invalides and led by a certain Hulin, some Parisians arrive at the foot of the Bastille around 3:30 p.m. with a few cannons. They fire on the fortress, galvanizing the crowd. The defenders of the Bastille retaliate, but curiously without using their artillery. This does not prevent the death toll from increasing among the attackers, and anger from growing more and more.
The opening of the Bastille is now demanded, but de Launay refuses if the lives of the besieged are not guaranteed. The fight, still so confused, continues. But the Parisians still have not found how to cross the ditch ... Without knowing why and by whom, the drawbridge is finally lowered, allowing the crowd to rush into the Bastille and begin to loot it . The governor of Launay is captured and, taken to the Town Hall, he is executed. A butcher, Desnot, is assigned to behead him and his head is brandished after a pike by the people. Jacques de Flesselles, accused of having played a double game, suffered the same fate. The winners of the day, for their part, count in their ranks a hundred dead.
The Bastille is looted all night, its prisoners released. The revolutionary story can begin ...
From the storming of the Bastille to the national holiday of July 14
The importance of the storming of the Bastille is quickly understood by the various actors, except perhaps by Louis XVI who, on his diary, would have written: "July 14: nothing" (it is in reality of his balance sheet of hunt that he speaks, but the "legend" is tenacious).
The consequences were, however, almost immediate: on July 16, the king was to recall Necker and, on July 17, undertake to wear the tricolor cockade. The movement leaves Paris, the Revolution continues its work, the storming of the Bastille ultimately acting as an accelerator.
From the following year, July 14, 1790, under the leadership of La Fayette, is organized on the Champ-de-Mars, the feast of the Federation, date chosen to commemorate the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in Paris. (there have been other federation celebrations in France in previous weeks). Almost a hundred thousand people attended, including representatives of departments, deputies, and Louis XVI himself. The king then takes an oath to the Nation and to the law.
Finally, on July 6, 1880, on Raspail's proposal, July 14 was declared a national holiday, with reference to the feast of the Federation of 1790. It is therefore the latter that we celebrate, not directly the storming of the Bastille.
- J. Godechot, The taking of the Bastille (July 14, 1789), Folio history, 1989.
- G. Chaussinand-Nogaret, La Bastille est prize, Complexe editions, 1988.
- M. Vovelle, The fall of the monarchy (1787-1792), Points histoire, 1999.
- C. Quétel, "Why did the Bastille not defend itself? ", In L’Histoire, no 364, May 2011, p 80-84.