Wednesday, 14 July 2010


“Most men are more capable of great actions than of good ones.” – Montesquieu

It is Bastille Day today, the National Day of France. France is a Western European country with shores on the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. It has an area of 544,000 square km and a population of 60 million. Its terrain is varied with high plateaux, mountain ranges and lowland basins. Its climate is mild ranging from typical Mediterranean in the South, to mild and wet further to the North. Agriculture is favoured by both land and climate making France one of the major European exporters of wheat, barley, sugar beet and wine. Manufacturing is the other major employer with rich reserves of oil, gas and coal assisting greatly the economy. French perfumes and other luxury goods are a major income earner while tourism is also a major industry. Paris is the capital city with other major cities being Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Lille, Grenoble, Rouen, Nantes and Toulouse.

The Bastille was an infamous prison in Paris, which the people stormed and seized in 1789, thus starting the French Revolution that toppled King Louis XVI and the aristocracy, ushering in the Republic. The revolutionary French song, “La Marseillaise” was composed by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792 and soon became the rousing song of the revolution and later, the national anthem.
The first stanza is:

    Allons enfants de la patrie,
    Le jour de gloire est arrivé.
    Contre nous de la tyrannie
    L'étendard sanglant est levé.

    Arise, children of the nation!
    The day of glory is here.
    Against us we see raised
    Tyranny’s bloody banner!

Hector Berlioz in the 19th century arranged the anthem for chorus and orchestra. In true French style, where the composer would normally instruct “tenors and basses” to begin singing, Berlioz wrote “everyone with a voice, soul, and blood in his veins, sing!” After another revolt in 1830, there was new interest in La Marseillaise. De Lisle wrote Berlioz a letter of appreciation for his arrangement, and invited Berlioz to discuss a libretto that de Lisle had written, but de Lisle died before they could meet.

The Bastille Day holiday in France symbolises the overthrow of the old monarchy and the beginning of the French Republic. Not only was the French monarchy undemocratic, but the king and aristocracy also owned most of the arable land and extracted not only the rent but imposed taxes and restrictions on the people. The Bastille with its many poor prisoners, many of them debtors and political prisoners, symbolised all that was bad in the corrupt, greedy and profligate monarchy. Economic injustice caused the French revolutionaries to storm the Bastille. Economic injustice still remains in today’s world. Many third world countries still do battle with unjust systems and have to do daily battle with corrupt, greedy powerbrokers in power. The spectre of the Bastille still haunts many an unfortunate land…

As we are looking at France today, here is a poem by Paul Eluard:

The Deaf and Blind

Do we reach the sea with clocks
In our pockets, with the noise of the sea
In the sea, or are we the carriers
Of a purer and more silent water?

The water rubbing against our hands sharpens knives.
The warriors have found their weapons in the waves
And the sound of their blows is like
The rocks that smash the boats at night.

It is the storm and the thunder. Why not the silence
Of the flood, for we have dreamt within us
Space for the greatest silence and we breathe
Like the wind over terrible seas, like the wind

That creeps slowly over every horizon.

                                        Paul Eluard (14 December 1895 – 18 November 1952)

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