France celebrates the storming of the Bastille
July 14, 1999
PARIS (CNN) -- Fireworks, military displays, patriotic music and heads of state. Like America's Fourth of July, France's 14th marks that nation's most important national holiday -- Bastille Day, which set off the French Revolution that toppled the king.
The stirring strains of "La Marseillaise," France's national anthem, herald the 210th anniversary of that afternoon in 1789 when a few hundred ordinary Parisians, increasingly frustrated by the reign of an elite, absolute monarchy and fearing a military coup, went in search of ammunition to defend themselves.
Their destination was a 14th-century fortress, the Bastille, a prison known for its legends of terror and torture.
France's growing middle class and the increasingly out-of-touch government of Louis XVI had been at odds for some time, and the attack on the Bastille was no surprise to the garrison within it. They had been preparing for more than a week.
But far more angry Parisians arrived than were expected, and 300 prison guards deserted their posts rather than face the mob.
The hated Bastille fell, and its seven inmates -- none of them political prisoners -- were released. The governor was killed, and his soldiers were paraded through the streets, many of them eventually slain.
The relative ease with which a group of citizens could overthrow an armed garrison was a loud and stunning proclamation. Two days later, the French Revolution had succeeded: France's anciens regime -- the monarchy - - was tumbling in the face of liberty, equality and fraternity, the revolution's motto.
Phases of government
The ancient fortress was dismantled, brick by brick. And a year after the storming of the Bastille, France's revolutionary leaders marked the day with a show of national unity.
The road to the French republic, however, was not a smooth one.
A constitutional monarchy was formed, and the king's rule ended in 1792. But the new republican leaders held onto some monarchic ideals, leading to the infamous Reign of Terror and their prodigious use of the guillotine to rid the government of their enemies.
The overthrow of that regime was followed closely by the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who eventually proclaimed himself emperor. He was succeeded by a return to monarchy, another short-lived republic and then a second empire before France became a republic for the third time in 1875.
Bastille Day became an official national holiday five years later, reconnecting France with the ideals of freedom and equality that led a group of ordinary citizens to perform an extraordinary act.
Washington D.C. toasts Bastille Day
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