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Storming Today's Bastille

Today is Bastille Day, la Fête nationale, le 14 juillet and all over the world, various francophones and francophiles will be celebrating all things French, or at least all things that they think are French. As usual, in France itself there will be the traditional military parade, when the French wing of the military-industrial complex puffs up its chest in recognition of its legacy as an imperialist power, its nuclear arsenal, and its membership to the UN Security Council. There will be pomp and ceremony, with heads of state and their assorted diplomats in their fine clothes and stately buildings providing motherhood statements of the great contributions that France has made to the world and continues to make. Playing it safe, some may even mention the arts.

What is rarely mentioned of course, is the actual event, the storming of the Bastille, and the circumstances surrounding it. The Bastille, apart from fulfilling its role as a political prison, was symbolically located in the middle of Paris, representing the iron first of the ancien regime. This of course was insufficient for the storming; France was in the midst of ideas of reform. The country was in financial crisis, the common people suffering under a system of onerous regressive taxation. A month earlier the Third Estate, representing the commoner population, had reformed itself as the National Assembly.

When Jacques Necker, the minister of finance, known for his sympathies towards the Assembly, was dismissed by King Louis XVI, on July 12, rumours spread throughout the Parisien population that that conservatives would seek to shut down the Assembly. As individuals sometimes can initiate the most critical events, the radical journalist and lawyer, Camille Desmoulins, addressed a large crowd and explicitly called for the people to take arms - and the National Assembly formed the body which would become the National Guard. It proved to be prescient as mercenary and loyalist forces clashed with civilians. Increasingly radicalised by events, and spurred by the defection of a local regiment of the Gardes Françaises, the Parisians captured the arsenal at the Hôtel des Invalides of some thirty thousand muskets. The powder and shot however, had been moved to the Bastille.

As it was, although a symbolic and historic prison, at this stage it was being used as an armory and garrison. There were only seven prisons housed there. There was however, some 114 soldiers with 30 artillery pieces. The crowd of almost a thousand revolutionaries (mostly artisans, some rebel soldiers) who sought ingress would lose almost a hundred of their number - the garrison would lose only one in the battle, although several were lynched afterwards (including the governor). Curiously, the commanders of some five thousand Royal Army troops encamped on the Champs de Mars did not prevent either the takeover of either the Hôtel des Invalides or the Bastille. Famously, when the King learned of the storming of the Bastille the following morning through the Duke of La Rochefoucauld, he inquired: "Is it a revolt?" The insightful Duke replied: "No sire, it's not a revolt; it's a revolution". A new city government was established, the Commune de Paris, a new military body was established, the National Guard, and the Royal Guards were scattered to frontier garrisons. The revolution had indeed began.

Today we are reminded of the enormous dispossession of the people from their share of the commonwealth of nations, and resultant widening gap between rich and poor and the terrible social problems this causes. We are reminded by the massive and growing numbers of prisoners on a per capita basis around the world where the most powerful countries - Russia, China, and the United States - are particularly noteworthy. It is not surprising to witness under these circumstances the increasing levels of discontent that people have with their rulers, and the disdain shown when their corruptions are exposed. It is not surprising the world's political leaders make no mention of the circumstances of the events that led to Bastille Day. Because they may very well be facing their own contemporary version of events.

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