Today is Bastille Day, sort of the French equivalent to the Fourth of July, as it commemorates the country’s eventual development into one of history’s earliest constitutional republics.
The name comes from a medieval prison where political prisoners were held by the royal government for arbitrary reasons and without a chance to appeal. For over a thousand years, France had maintained one of the world’s most authoritarian and hierarchical regimes, and the last place that ideals such as liberty and civic rights would emerge (the U.S. had the advantage of being a much younger place, and from inheriting the fairly liberal traditions of the U.K., whose monarchy was already weak by the 18th century).
Bastille became a symbol of this oppressive tradition, and hence it was targeted by the people of Paris on July 14, 1789, after they grew fed up with high taxes (that concentrated on the poor) and famine. While only seven prisoners were held in Bastille that day, the revolt was hugely symbolic of liberation of the French public, which continues to be a central part of France’s core ideals—represented by its three-color flag and official motto—of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all.
As French officials in the capital cowered before these newly empowered peasants, popular momentum built up into the French Revolution, which took on both the powerful monarchy and literally all of Europe (whose monarchies felt threatened by the fall of their principal kingdom). While the revolution descended into barbarism and bloodshed, and was eventually put down, the ideals that emerged remained in French hearts and minds, precipitating the reemergence of the republic in the late 19th century.
In fact, France’s well known tradition of protests and civil disobedience, which was on full display just a few months ago, can be traced back to this action.
Heck, this year’s Bastille Day was commemorated with officials honors and higher wages for essential workers—following months of agitation and negotiation with unions and workers.
This is par for the course in France, which has about 10 political marches every day.
There is even an “unofficial working manual” for French demonstrations, which is observed by all sides, including the government. (Those who fail to observe these rules are ostracized as casseurs or “smashers”.)
The protesters—who are generally up of a wide variety of folks, including steelworkers, winegrowers, students, lawyers, and chefs—would agree to an itinerary, provide their own security staff, and march on the agreed route. They would throw a few harmless objects police, usually for symbolic purposes; the police would respond, usually halfheartedly, with tear gas or baton charges.
The usual doctrine of French riot police is to stand back and protect the biggest public buildings. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades are used to keep the crowds at bay—and on their declared routes. Riot police are trained to act only in groups and only on direct orders; in theory, they have no right of individual action or initiative. They are supposed to aim their nonlethal weapons below the waist and not use stun grenades in densely packed crowds.
Occasionally, more radical protests do emerge, resulting in serious scuffles or brawls; for their part, French riot police are known for lacking deescalation techniques. But overall sentiment underpinning these practices—that demonstrations and popular assembly are core to both political and social culture—remain robust and admirable.