Bastille Day: How it inspired centuries of civil disobedience

By Ryan Prior and Erin Davis

Published July 14, 2020


Bastille Day, which falls on the July 14, celebrates the populist seizure of power from tyrannical rule. It's also a reminder to the modern-day regime that the French citizens who invested them with power have the ability to remove them, too.


Here's the rundown on Bastille Day's history, and the resistance it continues to inspire long after.


What was the storming of the Bastille?

High taxes and a summer of famine in 1789 lead French citizens to storm the castle of Bastille, a military fortress and prison. The seizure represented the resistance against the Bourbons, the tyrannical French monarchy.

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The events that led up to it

  • King Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette spent extravagantly, and they also inherited debts from the previous rule.

  • When the monarchy began to feel the pressure, Louis tasked the Estates-General, the country's legislative body, with drafting a new tax plan.

  • Louis kicked out finance minister Jacques Necker, a popular non-noble, and the response was explosive, causing French protesters to fill the streets.

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What went down

The mob marched on the Bastille, where its governor, Bernard-Rene de Launay, cowered within. He agreed to negotiations with delegates, but eventually the protesters broke in, and de Launay gave the order to fire on the crowd. The revolutionaries suffered great losses, but eventually took the fortress after several hours.

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Why it matters

Bastille was one of the key events that incited the French Revolution. It's celebrated with fireworks and parades, but Bastille Day is so much more than a national holiday.


It fostered a culture of civil disobedience in France that inspired countless revolts, uprising and demonstrations for centuries afterward.

These are some of their most defining moments.

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1848: The second Revolution

About half a century after the events of the Revolution resolved, the public mobilized in massive numbers once again to tear down the rule of King Louis-Philippe. They established the second Republic after a coup d'état held by Louis-Napoleon.

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1968: "Cobblestone" Student Protests

Students of Sorbonne University took to the streets after an occupation sparked violent conflict with the city's police. The protests were famously remembered by the cobblestones the demonstrators flung toward police.

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1986: University Reform Protests

A proposed bill on university selection criteria caused massive upheaval. The protests came to a climax after a student was beaten and killed by police. The bill was eventually negated and the minister that proposed it resigned.

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2018: The Yellow Vest Protests

More than 300,000 people across the country mobilized against a government-imposed tax on gas and diesel. The protests grew into a much broader resistance against the administration of President Emmanuel Macron.

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