14 July 1880
First national holiday
The Republicans only gained full control of all institutions in early 1879. For the Republic to take root, symbols, rituals and collective practices needed to be established. The events of the Revolution became founding myths, building historical continuity with the newly-established Third Republic. So what date and event was to be chosen to mark the French national holiday? In the opinion of the members of Parliament, the people must have played a major role in the process of liberation and the affirmation of sovereignty in seeking freedom, without violence or physical disturbances. Between 1789 and 1880, there were many examples of such events.
The 1830 Revolution opened up the options of 27, 28 and 29 July, but this coincided with the return to power of the Orléanists.
The 1848 Revolution was the obvious choice for the old socialist Louis Blanc who proposed 24 February, which marked the start of the events leading to universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and National Workshops. However, the social momentum of spring 1848 had been stopped by the repression in June and July 1848, the shift to a conservative Republic and then the Second Empire.
The date of the proclamation of the Third Republic, 4 September 1870, could attract votes. But that fragile Republic, which came about three days after the Battle of Sedan on an alienated and occupied territory, had been quickly taken over by the conservatives and it would be ten more long years before the Republicans won back the institutions from the monarchists.
So that left the French Revolution. But it was tricky to choose between the possible dates it opened up. 9 Thermidor (1794), the fall of the Montagnards and the end of the Reign of Terror, was too controversial a date to rally the entire nation. The Battle of Valmy, on 20 September 1792, followed by the proclamation of the First Republic, had the benefit of being at the start of the school year, after the grape harvest. However, it was clouded by the violence during the overthrow of the monarchy of 10 August 1792, the capture of the Tuileries, the imprisonment of the King and then the September Massacres. So the spirit of 1789 emerged as the best event to unite the people of France. Some favoured the Tennis Court Oath by the Third Estate on 20 June, which was still in people’s memories due to the drawing by Jacques-Louis David. However, it was a mainly bourgeois assembly, using a monarchical voting mechanism. 5 May, the opening of the Estates General, was rejected for the same reasons. Although 4 August was indeed the night that the feudalism was abolished, this was an initiative by mainly aristocratic and religious members of Parliament who were partly acting to assuage the Great Fear. Surprisingly, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on 26 August did not receive votes.
So the date of 14 July came to the fore in the discussions. Due to the writings of Victor Hugo and Michelet, the collective memory focused on this historical substrate which it hailed as a founding event, the victory of the people over royal arbitrary power. The staunch Republicans liked the glorification of popular heroism of 14 July 1789. The moderate Republicans and some Orléanists appreciated the uniting force of 14 July 1790, which mitigated the violent nature of the storming of the Bastille and broadened the events in Paris to the entire nation, united behind a shared project.
On 21 May 1880, an elected representative from Paris, Benjamin Raspail, submitted a bill which was adopted by the Chamber of Deputies on 8 June, and then the Senate on 29 June. The law was enacted on 6 July, a few days before the first Bastille Day celebration. The date was declared a bank holiday, like certain religious festivals.
In the stands of Longchamp Racecourse, which was preferred to the Champ de Mars, the President of the French Republic, members of government, elected representatives, foreign delegations and French military commanders all gathered for the celebrations. From the platform, the President of the Council of Ministers, Jules Ferry, President of the Chamber of Deputies, Léon Gambetta, and the President of the Senate, Léon Say, handed over the flags (infantry terminology) and standards (cavalry terminology) to the mounted military personnel who saluted them. To instil the Republican spirit in a traditionally conservative army, the new flags were embroidered with “French Republic”, “Honour and Country”, as well as the victories of regiments, while the gilded tip of their pole was stamped with the monogram “R.F.” [République française - French Republic]. The joy of 14 July 1880 banished the humiliation of losing the flags in 1870 and strengthened the ties between the army and the people. This Republican celebration was set up to be non-religious: the Clergy, the mass and the Te Deum hymn were removed.
The military parade brought together citizens from all over France, enlisted under the principle of conscription. Later in the day, Republican banquets, team games and public dances took place, to the sound of brass bands. They illustrated the joy of the storming of the Bastille, and were all the more joyous since they coincided with the end of the school year and agricultural work. A torch-lit parade and fireworks rounded off a memorable 14 July 1880.