Bastille Day: French Independence Day

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Bastille Day

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The French Independence Day is Bastille Day, July 14. It's called that because it celebrates the storming of the Bastille, a famous prison, during the French Revolution, in 1789. With the taking of this prison, the movement to replace a two-person government with a representative government began.

France at that time was ruled by King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette. It was an absolute monarchy, meaning that whatever the king and queen wanted, they got. It didn't matter whether the people were starving in the streets, so long as the royal banquet tables were full.

And it wasn't just the king and queen, either, who got to enjoy royal desserts. Rich people and others that the king and queen liked were invited to dine at the royal table or stay at the royal residence. And all the time, the mobs starved in the streets. Marie Antoinette is said to have exclaimed, to a question of what the starving people should eat, "Let 'em eat cake."

Cake, of course, might taste good, but it wouldn't keep people healthy, at least not in the long run.

So France had the very rich (symbolized by the king and queen) and the very poor (symbolized by the street mobs). Caught in the middle were the middle class, some of whom sided with royalty and others of whom sided with the poor.

These middle class people who sided with the poor soon found it very difficult to criticize the king's handling of the growing unrest. The more they spoke out, the more they tended to get thrown in prison. (It was a crime, after all, to criticize one's king or queen.)

And what prison did these people get thrown into? Why, the Bastille, of course. It was one of the more famous prisons (but by no means the only one). At one time, it had a sizable number of political prisoners, including the great writer Voltaire, who were there for no other reason than that they had spoken out against the government.

It also happened that the Bastille had a good number of guns and other weapons. This was the real reason for the storming of the Bastille. The mob had finally had enough of the king's ignoring their pleas and the queen's empty promises. And on July 14, they attacked the prison.

The mob seized the weapons they were looking for and released the prisoners inside. Ironically, only 7 prisoners were inside at the time. But the Revolution had begun.

Before its end, the Revolution and the Reign of Terror would claim hundreds of lives, including those of the king and queen. France would never be the same.

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