Bastille Day and the French Obsession with Authority

by / Friday, 12 July 2013 / Published in Book Excerpt, France, History

Capture d’écran 2014-07-13 à 14.16.46

Bastille Day is upon us again. I can already hear French fighter jets thundering overhead doing their practices rounds for the big day when they roar over the crowds amassed along the Champs-Elysées, leaving a thrilling super-sonic trail of red-white-and-blue smoke. Every July 14th evening, thousands converge on my neighbourhood in the 7th arrondissement for the annual fireworks lighting up the Eiffel Tower. 

The French are profoundly attached to their fête nationale. Their annual republican spectacle cements solidarity and emboldens deeply felt convictions about the grandeur of France. Never mind that the Bastille prison was nearly empty when it was stormed on July 14, 1789. 

I must confess that the July 14th celebration is yet another French ritual that I fail to comprehend. I don’t mind the fireworks, even though the feux d’artifice explosions on the Champ de Mars transform my quiet neighbourhood into a festive battlefield. It’s the militaristic aspect of Bastille Day that baffles me. Every year, France’s Jacobine republic treats itself to a Soviet-style military parade on the Champs-Elysées where thousands patriotically cheer rolling tanks and missiles rumbling down the grand avenue. You could almost believe you were in North Korea.

The French don’t see it that way of course. Whenever I make ironic comments to French friends about the militaristic aspect of their Bastille Day festivities, they look at me perplexed, searching my meaning, injured by my mockery.

I realised long ago that the relationship between that state and the individual in France is a subject that will always be a source of incomprehension to Anglo-Saxons. The vast majority of the French desire a strong state, are proud of their army, and believe fervently in grandeur of their republic. Accordingly, they are not in the least troubled by the sight of tanks rumbling noisily down the Champs-Elysées – so long as they’re not German panzer divisions.

Capture d’écran 2014-07-13 à 14.41.13An off-hand remark by an old friend visiting from England made me reflect on the bizarre French reverence for state authority. Adrian St. John, whom I’d known at Nuffield College, was in Paris working on a short-term contract at the OECD think tank. Adrian had stood out as something of an Old Tory amongst a generation of young Thatcherites studying “econometrics” at Nuffield in the 1980s. In college we were both great friends with a vaguely Brideshead figure called Gunnar Guppy, who was reading philosophy with Sir Isaiah Berlin. We had another friend at Oxford in those days, Andrew Adonis, who later worked as an adviser to Tony Blair in Downing Street, became a Labour minister, and ended up in the House of Lords.

“So how are you finding Paris?” I asked Adrian.

We were in the Café Danton in Odéon just down the boulevard from Saint-Germain-des-Prés. 

Adrian gave my question some thought, and then said: “I could never live in a country like France.”

His reply startled me. It was not the usual reaction you get from an Englishman discovering the allures of the City of Light.

“Why not?” I asked. 

“Too many armed policemen in the streets,” he said. “It’s like a police state. Don’t know you how live with it. Do you ever get arrested?”

Adrian was right of course. There are policemen everywhere in the streets of Paris. I’d been living in France for so long that I’d grown indifferent to the battalions of French police forces, equipped like Roman centurions, stationed in front of the Invalides and patrolling Les Halles.

France’s security forces are called “CRS” for Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité. The CRS have a reputation for blunt-force repression. Don’t cross these chaps, you’ll get your head cracked with a truncheon. They’re always out in full force whenever there’s a threat of a demonstration, which in Paris is frequent. French soldiers are also a common sight in Paris. At the foot of the Eiffel Tower you can see two or three khaki-outfitted soldiers grimly gripping sub-machine guns while casting suspicious glances at passers-by.

In France all police forces that enforce public order are soldiers. They may look like policemen, but they belong to the French army. So do firemen in Paris. The fire brigades roaring around the streets of Paris with sirens blazing look like regular fire fighters, but they are trained soldiers in the French army. Fire stations in Paris are military garrisons in disguise. France is not just a police state; the policemen are soldiers.

Adrian, as an Englishman, was unaccustomed to living in a society where the stern face of authority is everywhere.


The obsession with authority in France pre-dates the French Revolution. One fascinating illustration is buried in the annals of French history and today has been largely forgotten. It’s the infamous “beast of Gévaudan” terror of 1764.

That year, Louis XV had been king for decades though the Bourbon dynasty was only twenty-five years from the guillotine. France had just lost the Seven Years War and, foolishly preferring to keep sugar flowing to Paris, ceded much of Canada and vast territories in America to Britain in exchange for keeping Guadeloupe. The year 1764 also marked a gruesome chapter in the history of a remote corner of the Auvergne region known as Gévaudan. France’s Catholic monarchy regarded the region’s rural and mostly poor population with suspicion due to their devotion to the Protestant faith. But in the spring of 1764 something happened in Gévaudan that spread panic all the way to Paris. In the region’s rugged Cévennes mountains, a wild beast crept out of the dark forest and began savagely attacking the local population, killing dozens of children, women and peasants.

Those who claimed to have seen the “beast of Gévaudan” (depicted below in a statue) swore it was an enormous wolf. They described it as a lupine werewolf-like creature with reddish fur and foul breath. Some said it was a giant bear, while others swore it was a beast unknown to man. Whatever it was, the beast of Gévaudan’s vicious attacks terrorised the region. For some reason, it preferred to attack humans to sheep and cattle. The beast charged from the woods and pounced on its victims, ripping out their throats, devouring their torsos, and leaving their tattered corpses splayed like blood-soaked rag dolls. The beast’s first victim was a 14-year-old girl called Jeanne Boulot, torn to pieces in the small village of Hubacs. Several weeks later the corpse of another teenage girl who had been watching over sheep was found horribly mutilated. Dozens more attacks occurred. The death toll rose to more than a hundred. By the end of the summer of 1764, the people of the Gévaudan were so terrified that they made an urgent appeal to the king of France.

Capture d’écran 2013-07-12 à 13.35.26Louis XV felt something had to be done. He dispatched a posse of expert wolf hunters and their bloodhounds to track down and kill the beast. Shortly after the king’s men arrived in the region, they killed a few local wolves. But the beast of Gévaudan’s gruesome attacks continued. Finally Louis XV sent in François Antoine, the royal harquebus bearer and Lieutenant of the Hunt. Antoine was the king’s official representative. Antoine moreover seemed like the right man for the job. In September 1765, more than a year after the beast’s attacks had begun, Antoine shot and killed a large grey wolf weighing 130 pounds. Antoine declared that the beast of Gévaudan was truly dead. The people of Auvergne could return to their pastures with no fear.

Antoine returned to Versailles where he displayed the dead beast in court as a trophy. Louis XV received him as a national hero. There was one small problem however. While Antoine was being fêted at court in Versailles, down in the Auvergne region a ferocious beast was still attacking and killing people. Clearly, the large wolf on display in Versailles was not the beast of Gévaudan. No matter, as far as the Bourbon court was concerned, the beast of Gévaudan had been officially killed. The king’s emissary had seen to it. There were, it seemed, two beasts of Gévaudan: the official beast that had been shot and killed on order of the king; and the real beast that was still roaming in the rough-hewn valleys of the Cévennes and ripping to pieces dozens of new victims. In Versailles, however, the only beast that counted was the official one. The king had declared that the beast was dead, and so it was dead.

The beast of Gévaudan provides a gruesome illustration of the abstracted concept of authority in French culture. In the 18th century there were not only two beasts of Gévaudan, there were two Frances: one was the French state officially displaying its power and authority; the other was the real world where the French population went about their business. Today these two Frances still co-exist in a perpetual state of mutual distrust and incomprehension. In today’s Fifth Republic, hundreds of CRS policemen make a public display of their repressive force in the streets of Paris. They are as intimidating as a Roman legion. Yet swindlers and pickpockets casually go about their petty crimes with little fear of getting arrested or prosecuted. Today the beast of Gévaudan is still on the loose everywhere in France.


Capture d’écran 2013-07-12 à 13.39.42Several years ago when I was living in Fontainebleau, I naively believed that the annual Bastille Day celebration would be organised in the chateau’s grand Cour des Adieux courtyard, giving me a front-row seat to the festivities as I lived just across the road. One morning in early July I was crossing the boulevard with Oscar and Leo just as a chateau guard was opening the massive black-and-gold Napoleonic gates. I ambled over and asked him about the forthcoming Bastille Day celebrations.

“We don’t celebrate the July 14th in this town, Monsieur,” he replied.

“Really? Why not?”

“Fontainebleau, Monsieur, is a ville royale.”

 A ville royale? What could that possibly mean? France is a republic.

 I looked into the matter and discovered that my informant was correct. The citizens of Fontainebleau, a conservative town loyal to the values of Church and monarchy, reject the Jacobine legacy of the French Revolution. If they must live under a republic (they have no choice on that point), they certainly won’t celebrate it. More than two centuries after the storming of the Bastille, the Bellifontains refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Jacobine usurpers who decapitated the Bourbon dynasty.

The locals in Fontainebleau prefer to celebrate the annual fête of the canonised French king, Saint Louis (right) every August 25th. This same ambiguity towards Bastille Day, I am told, persists in other pockets of la France profonde, especially in Catholic regions such as the Vendée where Jacobine revolutionaries massacred the local population during the revolutionary Terror.

This year, as every July 14th, not everyone in France will be cheering as tanks rumble down the Champs-Elysées and fighter jets roar overhead. While there is a large consensus around the militaristic spectacle on Bastille Day, a fraction of the French population still profoundly resent everything it symbolises.