The Nice Attacks and the Meaning of Bastille Day

France’s national celebration becomes an occasion for national mourning.

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

Apart from the visceral horror of the carnage in Nice, France, Thursday night, the attack takes on additional symbolic weight because of the date: July 14, the holiday popularly known as Bastille Day abroad and La fête nationale inside France.

The natural analogy for an American audience is to July 4, the U.S. observance of independence and the major celebration of patriotism and the nation. The analogy is useful, but only as far as it goes. July 4 marks the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence from Britain, and while scholars debate the causes and results of the American Revolution, the occasion is near-universally celebrated and fondly remembered by the U.S. population. Bastille Day, by contrast, celebrates a pivotal event in the French Revolution—a civil war, and one whose righteousness and meaning remain hotly debated even today.

As most American high-school students can recount, July 14 marks the day in 1789 that a crowd in Paris stormed the Bastille, an arsenal and prison where political enemies of the monarchy were often held. They freed the inmates (there were only seven) and plundered the munitions. It was one of the earliest and most important moments in the revolution.

Of course, the legacy of the revolution remains controversial. As reviled as the ancien regime may have been, what followed included the Reign of Terror, the rise and emperorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, the revolution of 1848, the rise of Napoleon III … you get the idea. Herbert Tuttle wrote in The Atlantic in 1872, “The essential fact is that not one of those dynasties has made a sincere and intelligent effort to deal with democracy as something which can be fostered and utilized, but cannot be exterminated. Each has sought by its own method do destroy the indestructible.”

It was not until nearly a century after the storming of the Bastille that July 14 became a national holiday. In 1870, Napoleon III was deposed following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and exiled, leading to the establishment of the Third Republic. While some French republicans had called for making July 14 a major national holiday, the government did not do so until 1880, following a large, unofficial celebration in Paris the year before. (For comparison, it was not until 1870 that the U.S. government officially established July 4 as a holiday, and even then it was unpaid for government employees.) The establishment of a national celebration was intended in part as a salve to the nation after the humiliating defeat at German hands. Even at that time, the decision to create the holiday was controversial, challenged by monarchists and conservatives.

But the holiday took hold, and remains widely celebrated. There are fireworks, parties, and a major military parade—in short, it is a celebration of national prowess, including military might. As the legacy of the French Revolution fades in French society, however, does that really hold? The French historian Christian Amalvi asked that question in 1998:

To the extent that, “here and now,” the French Revolution is no longer a major stake in a battle for the collective memory, the national holiday has been drained of its historical and political substance. To the extent that the republican idea, best symbolized by the Bastille Day celebration and Jules Ferry’s secular public schools, is now universally embraced, no one in France today feels compelled to do battle over the wisdom of commemorating the “revolutionary saturnalia,” as Bastille Day used to be called by its enemies under the Third Republic. A recent poll by the magazine L’Express found that “the Revolution is seen [by seventy percent of the French public] as the founding myth of the national consciousness.”

If the July 14 attack in Nice was an assault on French identity, it comes as France stands at a potentially defining political moment. The European Union is showing signs of fracturing. President Francois Hollande’s approval ratings are almost impossibly low. France is flexing its military muscles abroad in a way unseen for many years. Tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere have entered the country in recent years. The country still has not solved the problem of how to assimilate disaffected Muslim youths in outer cities. Far-right parties, including Marine Le Pen’s National Front, are on the rise. The Nice attack represents the third major apparently Islamist terror attack in the last 19 months—after the Charlie Hebdo massacre last January and the Paris attacks in November—in addition to smaller incidents.

July 14, 2016, could therefore ultimately serve to re-enliven the holiday, to fill it back up with the historical and political substance of which Amalvi wrote it had been drained. But if La fête nationale is a celebration of French identity, the question is what identity France might choose to adopt next.