Saturday I celebrated Bastille Day by eating snails, sipping a glass of Pinot and sprinting away whenever I spotted a German. July 14th is Bastille Day, the feted national holiday of our friends and allies the French.
Why they celebrate Bastille Day is actually something of a mystery to me. As you’ll recall from high school history class, the Bastille was a royal fortress where they allegedly locked up political prisoners. (Kings and despots tend to accrue political prisoners constantly, the way you find superfluous hangers in your closet.) So when a group of revolutionaries smashed through the medieval castle and freed its inmates, the jailbreak represented a significant flashpoint in the French Revolution.
In reality the Bastille wasn’t really a such a bad place. One of the prisoners wrote of his experience at the Bastille, “The wine was not excellent, but passable.” I’ve read worse reviews about The Olive Garden on Yelp.
On that fateful day in 1789 when the common people crashed the gates of the king’s jail, one hundred people died in the scuffle. How many people were actually inside of the Bastille at the time? Seven.
Four of them were legitimate felons serving time for forging documents. The most notable inmate was the Comte de Salonges, sentenced there for “sexual misdemeanors.” Given the nation and period, one can only speculate as to what kind of bizarre fetish the comte nursed in order to justify incarceration. The other two inmates were lunatics; Major Whyte had a beard reaching down to his hips, and believed himself to be Julius Caesar.
As you can imagine, the Bastille was not exactly a maximum security facility. The guards employed were invalides, veterans incapable of regular armed service in the field. So the Bastille was more or less a jail for losers employing a kind of royalist program to employ handy-capable security guards.
In summation, then, Bastille Day celebrates an angry mob pummeling stumpy older veterans to free a handful of lunatics, counter fitters and an aristocratic pervert. And the whole thing was unnecessary anyway. The cost of maintaining an entire medieval fortress and eighty-two maimed guards in order to house seven losers was absurd enough that the French government, in a rare instance of fiscal austerity, had already decided to shut down the facility. Viva la France!
My withering historical critique aside, it’s strange that Americans continue to dislike the French so much. They’re in NATO, we’re trading partners, and most of the people I know who hate Frenchmen have never actually been to France. Conversely, my singular trip was delightful, and the bulk of Gauls I met were both polite and sufficiently hygienic.
I like France but I don’t understand it. Everyone in the country is guaranteed by law eight weeks of paid vacation. It’s also virtually impossible to fire anyone from a job, ever, under any circumstance. They tend to riot en masse every Tuesday or so. It’s the sort of country where you can go to a cafe for lunch only to discover a sign on the door that says “Cafe closed– out to lunch.” How does their economy work, exactly?
My singular complaint about the country is that it’s staggeringly protectionist. For instance, to spare favored industries from actual competition within the European Union’s Free Trade Area, France has literally declared their household sponge industry as falling under the umbrella of “national defense.” Thus exempting the crucial sponge industry from the rigors of free market competition. That the French can concoct arguments about sponges applying to national defense speaks both volumes about them as a people and their understanding of military strategy.
America hasn’t always been a global super power. We were basically the Arkansas of Europe up until 1850 or so. The only reason our backwater colonies staved off the largest empire on the planet is because in 1776 the French bankrupted themselves helping us fight our revolution, purely to irritate the British.
In the War of 1812 the British were too busy fighting Napoleon Bonaparte to dedicate the necessary energy to make us all Canadians. In turn, Napoleon sold us the Louisiana Purchase in order to finance his war against the Brits. (So, ironically, most of the red states which once re-named French fries “freedom fries” are themselves former French territories.)
The French gave us the Statue of Liberty. Jefferson was a Francophile. There are still strains of syphilis floating around Paris which trace their illustrious lineage back to Benjamin Franklin.
It’s possible that anti-Guallic sentiments went away, but then came back through our ongoing “special relationship” with the British. This often happens with sexually-transmitted diseases like chlamydia. One partner will get cured, then give it back to the other, and so forth.
I think the biggest reason is probably the simple fact that Charles de Gaulle was an anti-American twit. But he’s dead now, the Statue of Liberty still proudly looms, and the threat of French socialism soaking into neighboring countries isn’t likely unless it turns out that the next big war hinges on strategic household sponge reserves.
So to our French friends I say: Happy Bastille Day, may your cheese be copious and your snails populous. Viva la France!
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