Why the attack in Nice on Bastille Day was an attack on France’s sense of self

Striking at the heart of the French Republic. Eugene Delacroix/wikimedia

Islamic State has claimed it was behind the attack in Nice in which at least 84 people died. It is yet to be verified, but the event bore all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack against the French people. This was not simply because of the identity of the perpetrator and his presumed motives, but because of the symbolism of the date of the attack.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 was motivated at least in part by the satirical magazine’s portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed. The following killings of shoppers in a Port de Vincennes supermarket clearly targeted Paris’s Jewish population. The November 2015 attacks in Paris can be viewed as a more general assault on what Islamic State views as an undesirable, hedonistic Western lifestyle. The attack in Nice, however, because it took place on the national holiday of Bastille Day, is an attack on modern France’s very sense of self.

July 14, as every student of French knows, is the date on which the French nation celebrates the storming of the royal prison, the Bastille, in 1789, by an angry, hungry mob of Parisians. This is remembered as a first blow against royal oppression and the event that launched the revolution that would lead eventually to the downfall of the monarchy, the emergence of the short-lived First Republic, and the rise of Napoleon.

The storming of the prison was a largely symbolic event to the extent that it contained very few prisoners and not all of these were political. Many historians would actually argue that the revolution proper began a month earlier in June 1789 when the National Assembly was established by the people’s representatives without the king’s permission.

July 14 1789 is significant because it was the moment when the people themselves became a key actor in the unfolding drama, joining forces with, and lending muscle to, the middle-class lawyers, clergymen, and lesser nobility who represented them in the assembly. In the eyes of revolutionaries and their republican inheritors, it brought to life one of the most important principles of the revolution: that sovereignty resided with the French people and not with the king.

A site of conflict

Bastille Day celebrations have therefore become a way of celebrating national and social unity alongside the principle of popular sovereignty. But July 14 only became a public holiday in 1880 under France’s Third Republic (1870-1940), the first regime to try to capitalise symbolically on the revolution.

Bastille Day celebrations at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on July 14 2016. Ian Langsdon/EPA

It was a crucial weapon in the war waged by republicans against opponents and, in particular, those monarchists and nationalists who wanted a return to authoritarian forms of government and who therefore refused to celebrate it. In the first half of the 20th century, movements such as the anti-Semitic Action Française, for instance, sought to return France to a mythical golden age of absolute monarchy, tried instead to encourage the French to adopt the fête de Jeanne d’Arc, commemorating the liberation of Orleans by Joan in 1429.

When the Nazis invaded in 1940 and the Republic voted itself out of existence by granting full powers to the collaborationist Philippe Pétain, July 14 went the way of parliamentary democracy, human rights, and secular education. Neither Pétain nor the Germans could risk allowing the celebration of the power of the French people at a time of dictatorship and occupation.

It was replaced with a national holiday centring on Joan of Arc, she who had rid France of Germany’s principal remaining enemy: the English. Celebrating Bastille Day in occupied France was a particularly serious offence and could lead to deportation. Nevertheless, many French did mark July 14 and it became an act of resistance.

Republican values

Since the return to democracy under the Fourth (1944-58) and Fifth Republic (1958-present), Bastille Day has remained in many French minds a means of reaffirming both the government’s and the people’s commitment to the principles of republicanism. It is not just a means of commemorating a single revolutionary act. It represents an annual resigning of the contract between the government and the people and a reaffirmation of the latter’s sovereignty and the former’s recognition of this fact.

But we can never assume that this contract is recognised and respected by all and the history of Bastille Day shows that this has rarely been the case as it has long been a site of conflict. It is clear to many of us who observe France from abroad that, as in other European nations, there is a section of the population that does not feel, and perhaps has never felt, part of the national whole.

The Nice attack was a clear rejection of the values of the Republic and the principles by which many Europeans of diverse origins live. It may well have been motivated by anger and alienation, but it was delivered with the insensitive brutality of the oppressor.

This article was updated on July 16 to reflect the claim of responsibility made by IS for the attack.