Just what do we celebrate on July 14? In France, there will be plenty of fireworks, Chinese lanterns, and dancing. In the United States, under the name Bastille Day, and throughout the world, revelers will recognize the day in a thousand and one ways; no one anywhere will be unaware of it.
But what year are we celebrating? When the deputies of the French National Assembly decreed in 1889 that July 14 was to be a national holiday, the Left was referring to the taking of the Bastille in 1789; the Right, to the Fête de la Fédération of 1790. The representatives left the assembly in great disarray by not clearly deciding between Act I, a violent and anti-monarchical revolution—the governor of the Bastille lost his head, which was to become an unfortunate national custom under the Terror— and Act II, a moment of national reconciliation, in which 1 million French citizens, having streamed in from all the provinces, gathered in the rain at the Champs de Mars, where the Eiffel Tower now stands, around King Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and representatives of the Catholic Church.
A Mass was said at the beginning of this vast production; its officiant was Talleyrand, a deputy from Autun in Bourgogne and a libertine bishop. Rising up to the altar, he was escorted by the Marquis de Lafayette, who was then head of the National Guard and known as the “hero of two worlds” for his contributions to the American Revolution. Talleyrand, himself no dupe, is supposed to have said to Lafayette: “Please don’t make me laugh.” Lafayette, unlike Talleyrand a sincere disciple of liberty and of constitutional monarchy, must have truly believed in this national reconciliation. To each, then, his own July 14—a day that has become a symbol of democracy for the whole world.
On that day in 1789, the Bastille held only seven prisoners: four forgers, two insane persons, and an incestuous nobleman—not a single political prisoner. The tipsy band of patriots who had taken this prison by storm—the weather was warm, and the wine was flowing in abundance—had no idea how their gesture would change the face of the world. Ironically, leading these actors on the great stage of history was an actual actor and professional poet with the pretty stage name of Fabre d’Églantine. He was not to be fitly rewarded; he died on the scaffold in 1794.
Whatever you think of these incidents, or the two July 14s, it remains the case that the date divides history into a before and an after. The old citadel, whose traces remain inscribed on the Parisian cobblestones, has become a metaphor for all the Bastilles, real or ideological, yet to be taken. It is also a metaphor of untenable promises of a new, more pleasant age. To be sure, since 1889, France has come around to democracy; it took a century. And democracy has become the unsurpassable horizon of history for all nations.
This new era of democratic dominance seemed to reach fulfillment again a century later, when the Berlin Wall, a kind of modern Bastille, was torn down. We then thought that no other form of government could any longer resist democracy, considered to represent the end of history. This was a time of lyrical illusion, renewed by the Arab Spring of 2010–2012. But we soon had to admit that “democracy” was often just a disguise, an obligatory figure of speech rather than a legal reality. Is the People’s Republic of China, for example, republican and democratic? It claims to be; Mao Zedong liked to invoke the examples of the Bastille and of the 1871 Paris Commune. This is nonsense, of course, but there is consolation in reading in this Chinese constitution an homage of Communist vice to republican virtue.
What appears more worrisome is the recent turn taken by democracies once considered exemplary but now straying further every day from the freedom they proclaim. There is Russia, which was democratic in 1991 but has ceased to be so since Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin, returning his people to ways that prevailed before the Bolshevik Revolution. India, acclaimed since its independence in 1947 as “the largest democracy in the world,” is tipping toward theocracy under the iron rule of Narendra Modi, whose ambition seems to be to impose a single religion—authoritarian Hinduism—on a people who have traditionally allowed for the coexistence of local forms of Hinduism along with Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and other faiths. In Europe, in shameful contradiction of our constitutional principles, the head of the Hungarian government has invented the baroque concept of “illiberal democracy”; this new regime grants full powers to the present officeholder, eliminating all opposition in the judiciary, the media, the universities, and rival political parties. The Polish government is following Hungary’s lead, and so is that of Belarus. And is this not the regime dreamed of by some of Donald Trump’s partisans, who stormed the Capitol this past January 6? Wherever we look, among all the civilizations we believed to be converted to democracy, the taste for freedom is evaporating while the authoritarian temptation is reborn, along with—especially in the United States—the identitarian temptation. The two are linked and together constitute an upside-down Bastille.
In France, as in the United States, we observe the rise of a nationalist sentiment that embraces a double illusion: an end to cultural diversity and a strong man (or woman) who, with a wave of the hand, crushes the virus, unemployment, and inequality. We recognize this myth of enlightened despotism; it dates from the eighteenth century. But has history not taught us that despots are rarely enlightened and that great men are the authors of great disasters? In addition, the United States has seen the rise of a movement that seeks to redefine equality as “equity”—mandating different treatment for those of different races—and that shows increasing disregard, even contempt, for the principle of free expression.
Democracy is always a work in progress, but from its institutionalized disorder—its controversies channeled by laws—are born the decisive steps of progress that improve our lives and bestow the right to “the pursuit of happiness” formulated by Thomas Jefferson and embraced by Louis Antoine de Saint-Just: “Happiness is a new idea in Europe.” This year, more than ever, the taking of the Bastille and its commemoration should inspire an essential reflection of the virtues of liberal democracy, as opposed to illiberal mystification.
Photo by Aurelien Morissard/Xinhua via Getty