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France is at the moment in the grip of riots and defiant gatherings that have caused multiple casualties. Apparent racism and Islamophobia have resulted in the death of Nahel — a 17-year-old French-Algerian — who was shot dead by a police officer when he allegedly refused to cooperate with the authorities.

Youth in France are full-fledged French citizens demanding an end to disenfranchisement, marginalisation, alienation, racism, law enforcement and security force brutality. The June 27 killing sparked six days of riots across France, with protesters looting shops, setting cars alight, destroying bus stops, and pelting police with fireworks that wounded some 200 law enforcement officers.

Attack on mayor’s house shocks France

The milieu is reminiscent of the 1789 — storming of the Bastille — which has become the French national day, celebrated on 14 July each year. In French, it is formally called the Fête nationale française and is the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, a major event of the French Revolution as as well as the Fête de la Fédération that celebrated the unity of the French people on 14 July 1790.

The Storming of the Bastille occurred in Paris, France, when revolutionary insurgents stormed and seized control of the medieval armoury, fortress and political prison known as the Bastille, which then represented royal authority in the centre of Paris. The prison contained only seven inmates at the time of its storming but was seen by the revolutionaries as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power. It’s fall was the flashpoint of the French Revolution.

The upheaval in France came about due to numerous factors. During the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major economic crisis, which was caused partly by the cost of intervening in the American Revolution and aggravated by massive taxes, exacerbated by poor harvests in the late 1780s. The winter of 1788–89 was one of the bitterest in history, leading the famine in the summer of 1789.

The tribulation was heightened by unimaginative financial policies imposed by Louis XVI’s contentious Finance Minister Jacques Necker, who believed that lavish spending would secure loans by presenting the monarchy as wealthy, adding to the monarchy’s financial woes.

Mass uprisings by the impoverished populace led to radical political and societal change in France that began with the Estates General of 1789 and ended with the formation of the French Consulate in November 1799.

The thought process of the French Revolution, many of its ideas are considered fundamental principles of liberal democracy, while the values and institutions it created remain central to French political discourse. Liberty, equality and fraternity (Liberté, égalité, fraternité), the popular slogans during the Revolution, became the national motto of France.

The next three years were dominated by the struggle for political control, intensified by economic depression and civil disorder.

The neighbours of France, Austria, Britain, Germany and other external powers sought to restore the Ancien Régime by force, while many French politicians saw war as the best way to unite the nation and preserve the revolution by exporting it to other countries. These factors resulted in the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in April 1792, abolition of the French monarchy and proclamation of the French First Republic in September 1792, followed by the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793.

His queen, Marie Antoinette, allegedly when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: “Then let them eat brioches (cakes).” Her mass unpopularity led her to the guillotine on October 16, 1793.

In the aftermath of the storming of the Bastille, the constitution was suspended and effective political power passed from the National Convention to the more radical Committee of Public Safety. An estimated 16,000 ‘counter-revolutionaries’ were executed during the subsequent Reign of Terror, which ended with the so-called Thermidorian Reaction (common term for the period between the ousting of Maximilien Robespierre on 9 Thermidor II, or 27 July 1794, and the inauguration of the French Directory on 2 November 1795).

Besides external threats, the Republic faced internal opposition from royalists and popular unrest. In order to deal with these, a new, less democratic, constitution established a five-man Directory which took power in November 1795. Despite a series of military victories — many won by Napoleon Bonaparte — political divisions and economic stagnation resulted in the Directory being replaced by the Consulate in November 1799. This is generally seen as marking the end of the Revolutionary period.

The political turmoil ascended another leader to the top — Napoleon Bonaparte — who became the de facto leader of the French Republic as First Consul from 1799 to 1804, then Emperor of the French from 1804 until 1814 and again in 1815. Napoleon’s political and cultural legacy endures to this day, as a highly celebrated and controversial leader.

He initiated many liberal reforms that have persisted in society, and is considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. His campaigns are still studied at armed forces academies worldwide. Between three and six million civilians and soldiers died in what became known as the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1880, the government revived 14 July as Bastille Day and as well as the Fête de la Fédération. Celebrations are held throughout France and even in former French colonies. The Bastille Day military parade has been held in the morning, each year in Paris since 1880. While previously held elsewhere within or near the capital city, since 1918 it has been held on the Champs-Élysées, with the participation of the Allies as represented in the Versailles Peace Conference, and with the exception of the period of German occupation from 1940 to 1944 (when the ceremony took place in London under the command of General Charles de Gaulle); and 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation.

The parade passes down the Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, where the President of the French Republic, his government and foreign ambassadors to France stand.

At the same time, above the Champs-Élysées, the fly-past and an impressive aerobatics display comprising aircraft and helicopters from the French Air Force, Naval Air Force and the National Gendarmerie, the Interior Ministry’s Civil Security Air Service continues.

The parade ends with a parachute display by selected parachutists from the French Armed Forces. This is a popular event in France, broadcast on French TV, and is the oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe. In some years, invited detachments of foreign troops take part in the parade and foreign statesmen attend as guests. Spectacular fireworks light up the Parisian sky in the evening of Bastille Day.

Incidentally, my wife’s birthday is also the 14th of July. When I was posted as Naval and Air Attaché to Riyadh, she and I would be invited to the French National Day reception hosted by the French Embassy. I would jokingly thank the French Ambassador for celebrating my wife’s birthday in such a grand manner.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron has deduced that France needs “order, calm unity and then to work on the deep causes of what occurred.”

On April 17, Macron — leader of the centrist Renaissance party and two-time president — gave himself 100 days to fix the fracture that had opened between France’s government and the public, outraged by his plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. He set the deadline as 14 July, choosing France’s national day — Bastille Day — which has come but Macron appears to be unable to control the situation.

The slaying of Nahel Merzouk has brought French intolerance for its coloured citizens to the fore. The Charlie Hebdo caricatures and Macron’s refusal to condemn the despicable act widened the chasm between French Muslims and Christians.

If the French President continues to apply band-aid rather than address the root causes of the divide, he could face another mass cataclysm.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

S. M. Hali

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF, and now a security analyst


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