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Saturday, 14 July 2018

The Third Estate And The Bastille

Today is my thirty-sixth birthday, and I am fortunate indeed that my birthday falls upon the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

The French don't really call it Bastille Day - they call it La Fete Nationale (the National Celebration). It doesn't need a name - it has its date, and that is how it is greeted to others. Joyeux Quatorze Juillet!

Why is it so important?

To understand that, we must go back to France as it stood in the late 1780s; an economy in crisis free-fall, partially from throwing its support behind the American Revolution, partially due to taxation being what we now call regressive (the highest burden falling upon those least capable of paying).

France was divided into three estates, effectively. The first estate was composed of the clergy - many of them upper clergy who were effectively living as nobility, but any individual within the church was part of the first estate. The second estate was formed of the nobility, of anyone with any kind of noble title - and, importantly, not a one of them was subject to taxation. The third estate was...well, everyone else. The common rabble. 98% of the population of France.

An Etate-General - a meeting of all three states, overseen by the King - was held to address the issue of the realm shitting itself to death in fiscal terms. The Finance Minister of the time - one Jacques Necker - had suggested tax reform, indicating that some of the obscenely wealthy members of the second estate should pay their way. In short, the people who weren't paying any damn taxes were furious at the implication that they should contribute to running the country they lived in. So on 11th July 1789, Necker got it in the neck - summarily dismissed from his post.

That didn't set right with the people. It took a day for the news to circulate properly, and then the public demonstrations began. Marches, disorder, the works. Goods that had been hoarded away by - well, you can guess who by - were raided and redistributed. A convent, rumoured to be one such hoard, was raided and found to contain over fifty wagons full of wheat.

There had been some military enforcement of order, of course; a cavalry charge had broken the back of one of the demonstrations, though it had been called short to avoid further bloodshed. The people knew that the only way they would survive this would be to deny this militia the means of combat. So early on the 14th, the partisans stormed the Hotel de Invalides, which was being kept as an armoury of sorts. They took the thirty thousand muskets held there, but found out that all the gunpowder had been transferred to the Bastille.

So off they went. The crowd - almost a thousand people, as records have it - took up position outside, demanded the surrender of the facility and the arms within. What began as negotiation started becoming fractious as the crowds outside - those not invited within to speak directly to the governor - decided they wanted in anyway. Thus began the actual fighting and subsequent breakdown of negotiations, leading to 98 of the vainqueurs being killed for only one of the defenders inside. However, as the day went on and the partisans were reinforced, the governor realised he couldn't hold the Bastille forever. He surrendered, at first with specific terms, then unconditionally.

That was it. The king conceded. He called off the military units still under his command from Paris. The Marquis de la Fayette - yes, that dude from Hamilton, the guy with the statue in Boston - took over the Parisian militia; the leader of the third estate was made officially mayor of Paris, and the king himself met with the militia to indicate capitulation.

The Bastille itself was disassembled and removed in five months. La Fayette himself gave the key to the Bastille to George Washington as a gift - it is still on display at Mount Vernon today. Many members of the second estate fled the country, fearing violent repercussions (which many of them met), and took to trying to stir up support from neighbouring monarchies. In late August, the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen was adopted by the National Assembly. It would form the basis of the French constitution, and begat the very fabric of Human Rights as adopted by international law.

The day that I share my birthday with was a day that birthed France as it stands as a modern nation. It was the first turn of the wheel on the journey from a pyramid scheme of a nation to something more egalitarian and humane, even if later in its life it started forgetting to apply such thoughts to the people it decided to make part of its empire. It is something I wish to see happen in EVERY nation - freedom for its citizens, equal treatment for all, and respect for one's fellows.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité. It remains the French motto. And as much as my father would spit at the notion - a man of Lebanon who was taught in a brutal French convent - I think those are words that we could stand to live by.

We've watched the second estate get fat off the backs of the third estate for a long time, people.

One of these days, we're going to have to storm the Bastille.

Happy birthday, me.

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