Bastille Day

Bastille Day

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History of Bastille Day in France

July 14 – Bastille Day is a national public holiday and a day of celebration in France that has been officially held since 1878 and made a lawful holiday since 1880.

What is Bastille Day?

It is held to commemorate the storming of the Bastille in Paris on July 14 1789 – the start of a course of events which led to destruction of the monarchy in France and the establishment of a new constitution and democracy.

The famous event which was to start a change to the course of history took place in a time of great difficulty for the country of France. Vast sums of money had been consumed in the name of war, pledged by successive Kings to support battle against its enemies but with little return. The people paid tax after tax to fill up the royal coffers and life for the common man was fraught with difficulty, lack of money, lack of food (additionally there had been bad harvests which led to flour shortages) lack of much comfort on a daily basis. Against this backdrop of misery the royal family continued their gilded existence, seemingly oblivious to the suffering of the ordinary people. Indeed on the fateful day of the storming of the Bastille the diary of the King, Louis XVI stated simply “nothing” – referring to his day’s hunting.

No one can really pinpoint what actually started the day’s proceedings – there had been unhappiness that the King had sacked his popular finance minister there had been rumours that a new parliamentary body which was seen to be on the side of the ordinary man would be stopped. Popular myth reports that when the Queen, Marie Antoinette was told of bread shortages in Paris she stated “then let them eat cake” but there is absolutely no proof that this occurred. What is known is that on the 14 th July, 1789, a crowd gathered, guns were procured and the baying and growing mob marched to the Bastille to obtain powder for the guns. The Bastille was at the time of its attack a medieval fortress which served as a prison and a warehouse for munitions and powder.

Negotiations between the governor of the Bastille and the spokesmen of the mob quickly escalated into an angry shouting match and the Bastille guards opened fire killing hundreds of people. A rescue team which had been called to support the guards and hold the Bastille arrived but against all odds decided to side with the crowd and the Bastille was surrendered after a fight and the building was destroyed. This was to start a chain of proceedings that would lead to the execution of the majority of the aristocracy of France including the royal family and years of turmoil and horror from which would emerge a new rule.

When the King was informed of the happenings at the Bastille he asked “is this a revolt?” and he was told “No Majesty, this is a revolution”.

Bastille Day as it is now known is celebrated all over France and its territories – cities, towns and villages have firework displays at the culmination of the day’s festivities which include official dinners, military parades in Paris and the night before a dance in the square where the Bastille once stood.


The annual Bastille Day French Festival brings together the French-Australian community to celebrate the French National Day. Now in its sixth year, this vibrant and authentic festival of all things French brings a little slice of France to Melbourne’s winter. With a wide variety of Melbourne-based French businesses and associations who are passionate about French culture, food, history, literature and technology, this is a must-attend event for every French expat and passionate Francophones and Francophiles.

“The Fête de la Fédération on 14 July 1790 was a celebration of the unity of the French nation during the French Revolution. The aim of this celebration, one year after the storming of the Bastille, was to symbolize peace…After the end of the official celebration, the day ended in a huge four-day popular feast, and people celebrated with fireworks, as well as fine wine and running nude through the streets in order to display their great freedom.”

Fighting for freedom: the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution

The French Revolution of 1789 ushered in over half a century of civil insurrection in Europe and around the world. It was, says David Andress, an attempt to strip society of the inequalities of privilege, at a time when ‘freedom’ had a very confused meaning. Here, Andress tells the story of the storming of the Bastille and explains the global context and impact of the French Revolution.

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Published: July 13, 2020 at 4:00 pm

The medieval fortress-prison of the Bastille loomed over eastern Paris. For centuries the enemies and victims of royal power had been carried there in shuttered coaches, and rumours ran of unspeakable tortures in its dungeons. On 14 July 1789 Parisians stormed the fortress with suicidal bravery. Their rage was directed at aristocratic enemies they suspected were ready to destroy the city to save their privilege.

Men leapt over rooftops to smash drawbridge chains, others dismantled cannon and hauled them by hand over barricades. The tiny garrison yielded on the point of being overwhelmed, and at the news, royal troops elsewhere in the city packed up and marched away, their officers unwilling to try their loyalty against the triumphant people.

The storming of the Bastille was the high-water mark of a wave of insurrection that swept France in the summer of 1789 – events that created the very idea of ‘revolution’, as the modern world was to know it. It was a complete overthrowing of an old order, following a failed attempt to prop up an absolute monarchy.

The French Revolution: key questions

When did the French Revolution begin?

The French Revolution is sometimes called the Revolution of 1789, however its roots stretched back further than this. It describes a revolutionary movement that took place in France between 1787 and 1799

What is Bastille Day?

Bastille Day takes place on 14 July each year in France and marks the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, an event that helped create the idea of ‘revolution’ as we know it today

What triggered the French Revolution?

The answer is complex, writes historian Julian Swann for BBC History Magazine. “Social explanations highlight the importance of conflict between aristocrats and bourgeois, peasants and landlords, or employers and workers.

“Political interpretations point to the consequences of miscalculations by the king or his ministers while those inspired by the cultural turn seek to identify the subtle linguistic shifts in intellectual and ideological debate that helped to sap the foundations of absolute monarchy.” Read more here

That monarchy had bankrupted itself, in one of the greatest ironies of this age, paying for a war of liberation halfway around the world. When the French king Louis XVI heeded the enthusiasts for American independence and sent his troops and fleets to fight the British Empire in 1778, he thought he was dealing a death-blow to an age-old foe. In fact, he launched a process that would make Britain an even more dominant global power than it had been before the United States broke free. But he would also create, against his will, a culture of equality and rights with a disputed heritage all the way to the present day.

A battle for the regency

France’s ancient enemy, Britain, was facing its own crisis as 1789 dawned. King George III had fallen into raving mania, and a bitter political battle was under way for the powers of a regency. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, after five years in office as the country’s youngest ever premier, had never shaken off the view of his opponents that his rule was an unconstitutional imposition. Placed in office in 1783 by the king’s favour, his government had faced threats of impeachment before a hard-fought 1784 election had given him a working majority. Now the opposition, led by Charles James Fox, saw the chance to eject Pitt when their royal patron, the Prince of Wales, took on the regency.

Listen: Stephen Clarke argues that our views of the events of 1789 and beyond need to be completely revised

In America, a transition scarcely less delicate or contested was in train. The years after independence in 1783 were a time of political and fiscal disorder. For two years the much-disputed form of a new constitution for the new nation crept towards fulfilment. ‘Federalists’ and ‘Antifederalists’ clashed vigorously, and occasionally violently, over the powers of central government, and though George Washington was unanimously chosen in January 1789 to be the first president, many still feared that the new power-structure would subject them to a tyranny as great as the British one they had escaped.

At stake in all of these countries was a tangled web of ideas about the meaning of freedom, its connection to the concept of rights, and the besetting question of whether such terms covered the privileged possessions of a few, or were the natural heritage of all. For the Anglo-American world, freedom and rights had first been seen as the historical consequence of a very particular evolution.

From the medieval days of Magna Carta and the time-honoured maxims of English Common Law, radicals in Britain and its North American colonies drew an inspiration that blended seamlessly with the new philosophies of men such as John Locke in the 1680s, so that rebellious Virginians in 1776 could assert boldly that:

“All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Yet as they did so, they also excluded their very many slaves from these same rights. To the west, in the Kentucky territory, and further north in the borderlands of the Ohio, white Americans were to show through the 1780s, and beyond, that the Indian nations of the continent also lacked the mysterious qualities necessary to participate in Locke’s ‘natural’ rights.

Listen: Stephen Clarke argues that our views of the events of 1789 and beyond need to be completely revised

Many on the more radical side of British politics, meanwhile, had supported the American quest for freedom, and seen it as part of a larger transatlantic struggle against tyranny. In this tradition, the ousting of the Catholic king, James II, in 1688 was hailed as a victory for liberty, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ on which British freedoms were founded. Celebrating its centenary in November 1788, the speaker at a grand dinner of such radicals expressed a wish for universal freedoms, that:

“England and France may no longer continue their ancient hostility against each other but that France may regain possession of her liberties and that two nations, so eminently distinguished… may unite together in communicating the advantages of freedom, science and the arts to the most remote regions of the earth.”

Such talk was cheap, however. While George III recovered from his madness in Britain and the United States eased slowly into existence across the Atlantic, in France the clash between the forces of freedom and privilege, rights and subjection, was played out in a dire and epochal confrontation.

Harassed by the need for money to pay off the state’s debts, the French monarchy found itself trapped between incompatible visions of reform. On one side stood institutions that claimed to be time-honoured defenders of liberty against overweening power. French nobles and judges asserted their rights to protect the nation from arbitrary rule, in the name of an unwritten constitutional tradition much like that accepted in Britain. For such men, the route to reform was through a more consistent acknowledgement of ancient rights, a more balanced approach to government – where what was to be ‘balanced’ were the interests of Crown and aristocratic elites.

Radical renegades

On the other side were the advocates of thoroughgoing change. Some, like the comte de Mirabeau, were radical renegades from noble ranks others, like Emmanuel Sieyès, had risen from humble birth (in his case through the ranks of the church). Though much of the late 1780s had seen such reformers in alliance with the defenders of the unwritten constitution, half a century of the philosophy and subversion of the Enlightenment had pushed the arguments of this grouping towards a dramatic divergence.

Enlightened thinking challenged the long-standing connections between belief in a universe created by God, the authority of religion over public life, and the hierarchical and authoritarian social and political order that such religion defended as ‘natural’. With sciences from physiology to physics on their side, thinkers set out a fresh role for the free individual in society. They wanted a new order – still a monarchy, but one both publicly accountable, and stripped of the buttresses of privilege that kept the talents of the majority from reaching the peaks of public office.

The Crown’s desperate straits had driven it to answer the calls of the massed ranks of its critics for an Estates-General – a national consultative assembly that had not met for almost two centuries. What should have been a panacea provoked a further sharp divide, as the privileged nobility and clergy were granted half the delegates, and possibly two-thirds of the votes. As the opening of the Estates in May 1789 approached, the mood turned apocalyptic.

Sieyès had written at the start of the year that trying to place noble privilege within a new constitution was “like deciding on the appropriate place in the body of a sick man for a malignant tumour… It must be neutralised”. His aristocratic opponents lamented “this general agitation of public insanity” to strip them of their ancient rights, making “the whole universe” seem “in the throes of convulsions”.

This conflict of words was already matched by one of deeds. Harsh weather and poor harvests had left French peasants impoverished and anxious. The political storm over the Estates-General provoked fears of an aristocratic plot to beat the people into submission. By the spring of 1789 tithes and dues owed to clergy and privileged landlords were being refused, and in some cases abbeys and châteaux were invaded, their stocks looted and records destroyed.

Meanwhile, urban populations, dependent on the countryside for food, and always suspicious of peasant motivations, increasingly saw such disruption as part of the aristocratic plot itself – for any trouble threatened the fragile supply-lines that brought grain to the cities. Town-dwellers formed militias, and waited anxiously for news from the men they had sent to the Estates at Versailles.

What played out over the summer months of 1789 was partly a violent confrontation – nowhere clearer than in the storming of the Bastille on 14 July – but also a strange mixture of dread and euphoria, as even many of the feared aristocrats came to be swept up in the idea of change.

On 4 August, in a bid to appease the restless peasantry, the first suggestion was made in the National Assembly (as the Estates-General had rebaptised itself in June) to end the various exactions that privileged lords could claim, by time-honoured right, from farmers’ harvests. The result a few hours later was a commitment to total civic equality, born of a “combat of generosity”, a “bountiful example of magnanimity and disinterestedness”. This spirit was expressed still more vividly later in August, in the voting “for all men and for all countries” of a Declaration of the Rights of Man.

From this euphoric peak, however, the only way was down. Within the year, those whose power was being directly challenged by the transformations of 1789 had coalesced into an overt ‘Counter-revolution’, and the links of this aristocratic grouping to the other powers of Europe fuelled a rising paranoia among revolutionaries, until a war to cleanse France’s frontiers of threat seemed the only way forward.

Listen: John Julius Norwich describes some of the key moments and personalities from French history

War was declared on Austria in April 1792, with Prussia entering the conflict shortly afterwards. An army wracked by dissent between ‘patriotic’ troops and ‘aristocratic’ officers (many of whom had already deserted to the counter-revolution) produced a string of military disasters. The conviction among Parisian radicals that royal treason was behind this led them to bring down the monarchy with armed force on 10 August 1792.

Newly-republican French armies rallied to save the country from defeat, but France moved inexorably towards the horrors of civil war and state terror, the revolutionary political class clawing at itself in furious division. Even amid such internal conflict, the spirit of free citizenship and newfound republicanism inspired continued prodigies of military effort. France went to war with Britain, Spain, the Netherlands and the Italian states from early 1793, plunging Europe into a generation of conflict.

Suffocated hopes

The true tragedy of this descent was that it suffocated all the international hopes of 1789. Americans found themselves forced to choose sides, with enmity towards either Britain or France a key component of the vicious factional politics reigning in the United States by the later 1790s.

Britain, where Thomas Paine in his Rights of Man had tried to bring the message of the American and French Revolutions home, saw assaults on freedoms such as habeas corpus and public assembly. The claims of the lower orders for a share of power were assimilated, in the words of one 1794 statute, to “a traitorous and detestable Conspiracy… for introducing the System of Anarchy and Confusion which has so fatally prevailed in France”.

Real revolt broke out in Ireland in 1798, fomented by exaggerated hopes of French intervention and exacerbated by the brutality of an establishment wedded to a view of the Catholic peasantry as little better than beasts. Thirty thousand died in months of savage repression. Napoleon Bonaparte, also in 1798, tried to take the war to Britain in the East, and the chaotic failure of his Egyptian expedition did not prevent him from ascending first to dictatorship the next year, and to an imperial throne in 1804. By then he had already, in 1803, broken a short-lived peace with Britain, and for the following decade was to pursue a relentless policy of expansion.

The unwillingness of the other powers to fully accept Napoleon’s legitimacy was one factor in this, but the emperor’s own determination to have dominance at almost any cost was itself a reason for that intransigent opposition. Together, they made for a spiral of warfare that criss-crossed Europe from Lisbon to Moscow, until the final insane Russia campaign of 1812 turned the tide.

Napoleon was driven back within French borders, abdicating in 1814 before returning the next year for a last hurrah at Waterloo. His final fate, to be held on the island of Saint Helena thousands of miles from Europe, reflects ironically on the power of the individual liberated by the events of 1789. Where the revolutionaries had hoped to create the conditions for the rise of free individuals everywhere, they gave power to one such man, someone so extraordinary he had to end his days like a character in a Greek myth, chained to a rock.

Napoleon’s legacy was to ensure that revolution would always be viewed through the lens of war. Abandoning a universalist rhetoric – and reinstating the colonial slavery his more radical predecessors had abolished in 1794 – the emperor of the French later claimed to have had a vision of a Europe of Nations, where Spaniards, Italians, Germans and Poles could live free of aristocratic tyranny.

Since he actually created an empire that stretched from Hamburg to Genoa, and client-kingdoms for his relations around its edges, there is little reason to take this claim seriously. That he thought it worth making, however, shows how central the new question of nationality would be, as the troubled generations to come wrestled yet again with the question of who was entitled to be free.

David Andress is professor of modern history at the University of Portsmouth. His books include The French Revolution and the People (2004) and The Terror (2005)

Bastille Day honors the rebellion that sparked the French Revolution

On July 14, France celebrates the anniversary of the day revolutionaries rose up against the monarchy and seized one of its most potent symbols.

When angry commoners stormed the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789, they struck a blow against one of the monarchy’s most forbidding symbols. The infamous prison no longer exists—it was destroyed in a bout of revolutionary fervor a few months later—but its legacy can still be felt in celebrations across France on Bastille Day, or la Fête Nationale (the national holiday), the anniversary of one of the defining moments of the French Revolution.

The imposing, eight-towered Bastille was built in 1357 to protect Paris against English invaders during the Hundred Years’ War. Intended to fortify the city’s eastern gate, the Port Saint-Antoine, the Bastille was surrounded by a moat and equipped with a series of dungeons. Over time, though, its purpose evolved, and it became a state prison—and a potent symbol of royal overreach and the suppression of free speech.

In pre-revolutionary France, the king had the power to issue lettres de cachet—a royal edict sending his subjects to jail with no trial, no release date, and no appeal. Many monarchs abused this power, dispatching the letters to political dissidents or using them to punish pornographers, publishers of seditious texts, and unruly young nobles who damaged their families’ reputations with unsanctioned marriages or extramarital affairs. Thus many of the Bastille’s detainees were aristocrats or writers, like the Marquis de Sade, though some were commoners who had been arrested for petty crimes like theft.

As time went on, fewer and fewer prisoners were held at the Bastille. Its aristocratic detainees even lived in relative comfort. By the time Louis XVI’s reign began in 1774, the Bastille housed only 16 prisoners a year—yet still loomed large in the minds of commoners who were starting to chafe under the monarchy.

Louis took power in the midst of a financial crisis due to overspending and years of expensive wars. Though he and his wife, Marie Antoinette, lived a lavish lifestyle, the state was nearly bankrupt, and the public struggled with food shortages, mass unemployment, and high taxes. (Ladies at Versailles scrambled to keep up with the queen's extravagent fashion taste.)

At the time, French society was divided into a strict hierarchy based on three social orders, or estates. In times of crisis, the king could convene a representative assembly, known as the Estates-General, to help address pressing issues. In May 1789, Louis XVI summoned representatives of the First (clergy), Second (nobility) and Third (commoners) Estates in an attempt to solve the nation’s financial woes.

The move backfired. The assembly reached a political impasse and, in mid-June, the Third Estate, which represented the vast majority of French society yet had less power than the other estates, broke off and formed a national assembly. Inspired by Enlightenment principles and emboldened by the recent American Revolution, they demanded a constitution and the ability to make law for the people, by the people.

Louis responded a few weeks later by firing his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had showed support for the Third Estate. The revolutionaries saw this—and a buildup of royal troops throughout Paris in early July 1789—as proof that the king planned to purge his government of all republican sympathizers. In response, people took to the streets to protest, clashing with soldiers along the way.

On the morning of July 14, 1789, thousands of revolutionaries seized a massive cache of arms from the Hôtel des Invalides, a military complex. But they had no gunpowder for their new weapons. So a crowd of about a thousand then converged on the Bastille, determined to obtain its rumored stash of gunpowder and secure the prisoners’ freedom. Unbeknownst to the revolutionaries, only seven people were imprisoned there at the time. (Who was the nameless Bastille prisoner who wore an iron mask?)

In the early afternoon, the crowd pushed into the fortress’s outer courtyard. Prison guards fired on them, and fighting broke out as royal guards stood by. The battle raged for hours until Governor Jourdan de Launay, who oversaw the prison, capitulated and opened the fortress’s inner gates. The revolutionaries stormed in, freed the prisoners, and took the gunpowder. They killed at least six prison guards, beat and stabbed Launay to death, then put his head on a pike to display.

About a hundred people died during the Storming of the Bastille, and the event is now remembered as one of the pivotal events of the French Revolution. Over the 10 years of upheaval that followed, France would execute its king and queen—and countless others—and transform into a republic. The building that had once stood as a monument of monarchical tyranny was now a symbol of liberty—and within months, it was demolished in a symbolic gesture. Its bricks were distributed throughout France and the world as souvenirs. (A French revolutionary's 200-year-old blood may reveal the disease that struck him down in life.)

Since 1880, France has celebrated July 14 as its national holiday, and usually a military parade and fireworks mark the occasion in Paris. On July 13 and 14, firefighters all over France open their stations to the public for all-night dance parties with plenty of free champagne. This year, as COVID-19 lingers, the celebration will be more subdued: According to the AFP, the firemen’s balls have been cancelled and though there will still be fireworks, the military parade has been called off and replaced by a smaller event to celebrate front-line workers.

History of Bastille Day

French and Francophile communities all over the US are gearing up to celebrate Bastille Day. Restaurants have special menus, cultural organizations like the Alliance Française plan concerts, parties and friendly competitions like waiters’ races and games of pétanque. The American President, too, is getting ready to help the French celebrate their national holiday, having accepted President Macron’s invitation to be a part of the commemoration and protocol surrounding this important day.

Bastille Day. But wait. In French, it’s not called “le jour de la Bastille”. Sure, this holiday pays tribute to the people of Paris who, in 1789, stormed the prison “la Bastille”. But in France, one hears simply, “le quatorze juillet”. Yes, the crowd took the Bastille, a symbol of royal oppression, and freed the seven remaining political prisoners.

Painting of the storming of the Bastille prison

Less symbolic and more important, perhaps, was the practical, tactical reason for attacking this particular fortress. Upon this important date, following a series of disastrous decisions on the part of and his advisors, the revolutionaries needed the weapons and ammunition stocked there. No longer would the peuple tolerate the grave injustices imposed by the Old Regime, where the nobility and clergy ran rough-shod over 97 percent of the population (le Tiers État). Such lack of representation was to be no more. French thinker Abbé Sieyès in his pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?” (1789) declared once and for all that sovereignty must belong to the people of a nation. The French Revolution, inspired by the American experience, nourished by Enlightenment philosophers and born out of a fundamental need for a new system of government showed the world that radical change is possible. Such an event is most certainly worthy of commemoration.

Champs-Elysées, 1900

So how do the French observe this important moment in their history? What might this July 14th look like? Early in the morning, one might walk near the Avenue des Champs-Elysées where flags line the length of this most famous of streets. Security barriers are in place awaiting the crowd that will soon arrive for the military parade.

This article is part of our Professor’s Perspective series—a place for experts to share their views and opinions on current events.

In the evening of the 14 juillet the streets come alive again. Fireworks displays and traditional Bals des Pompiers (Firemens’ balls) bring France together in cities and towns to celebrate Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité. It is a célébration populaire – best translated as for the people”, a joyous reminder that people can truly shape the future of a nation.

Bastille Day on the 14th July in Paris, taken on the Pont de la Concorde overlooking the Eiffel Tower, Trocadero and the Seine.

History of Bastille Day

Each year on July 14, Bastille Day is celebrated to commemorate the Storming of the Bastille in Paris on this date in 1789, an important date in the French Revolution. Also known as French National Day, it features feasting, fireworks, public dancing, and an address by the French President.

However, the center of this celebration is the largest and oldest European military parade along the Avenue of the Champs-Élysées. This wide boulevard runs through Paris and is called la plus belle avenue du monde. Lined by high-end shops and eateries, as well as the Arch of Triumph in the middle, it is undoubtedly the most beautiful avenue in the world that I’ve walked along. [[Except this year, due to Coronavirus there will not be a parade.]] Bastille Day is celebrated across the globe wherever French ex-patriots, people of French ancestry, and Francophiles live.


The history of the event goes back to 1789 at the time in France’s monarchy under King Louis XVI when he invited the Estates-General, representing the common people, to voice their grievances about high taxes and rising food prices. The people were unhappy about the economic crisis brought on by:

  • Louis’ extravagant spending at Versailles
  • The building of his navy
  • His financial support of the American Revolution, thanks to the negotiations of Benjamin Franklin, first American Minister (Ambassador) to France

But fear of reprisal caused the people to storm the fortress/prison known as the Bastille to seize gunpowder and ammunition and to free political prisoners. This was considered the start of the French Revolution. Shortly after that, France’s newly formed National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism and passed in August the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, becoming a fundamental document of the French Revolution. The following year, on July 14, 1790, the Fête de la Fédération was held to celebrate.

Historical Progression

The celebration, as we now know it, commemorated in a painting by Claude Monet called Rue Montorgueil, was held on June 30, 1878. It became an annual national holiday. Throughout the 1880s, it was celebrated famously as a victory over the old ancien régime, that period when the monarchy ruled France. The military parades we now see began then along the main boulevard, including marches by the Allies following the signing of the Versailles Peace Conference after WWI.

Of course, the Liberation of Paris was celebrated here along the Champs-Élysées on August 25, 1944. The parades pass along the boulevard from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, where the Champs-Élysées ends at Jardin des Tuileries (Tuileries Garden) and the Impressionist art gallery Musée de l’Orangerie, adjacent to the Louvre. Ironically, Place de la Concorde used to be called Place de la Revolution, where many notable public executions were carried out by guillotine during the French Revolution, including those of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in 1793.

American Connection

This document was heavily influenced by Thomas Jefferson, who worked on writing it with General Lafayette. Lafayette had come to America to aid in the American Revolutionary War in 1777. It was influenced by Jefferson’s other writings, including the American Declaration of Independence, and itself inspired the later 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the Declaration of Independence led later to the writing of the American Constitution, so too did the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen lead to the drafting of a constitution for France.

Bastille Day

Champs-Élysées and Arc de Triomphe

Bastille Day, or La Fête Nationale, the National Celebration or simply Le Quatorze Juillet, the fourteenth of July has been celebrated for over two hundred years in Paris, except during the German occupation during WWII when General Charles de Gaulle led it in London.

Even in my little town in Colorado, French ex-pats — and their Francophile American friends — dine on fine cuisine and lift a glass of wine to celebrate. My favorite local French bistro, La Baguette, has a 3-course gourmet dinner!

The History Behind Bastille Day

Bastille Dayplay is the national holiday of France, which falls on July 14, the anniversary of the 1789 storming of the Bastille—a medieval prison in Paris. The Bastille was constructed in the 14th century as a fortress for the defense of the city during the Hundred Years’ War, but later became a state prison for political prisoners, citizens awaiting trial, and prisoners held on direct order of the King of France. By 1789, only seven prisoners were inside the building, which had already been scheduled to be demolished.

On July 14, 1789, a revolutionary mob approached the Bastille to take the guns and ammunition stored there. The ensuing battle signaled the start of the French Revolution, and relics from the demolished Bastille became powerful symbols—or souvenirs—of the revolution.

Bastille was a generic word meaning “fortress” or “prison,” and the word derives from the word meaning “to build” in Old Occitan, a language spoken in medieval southern France. It came to mean “fortified town” and then “fortress.” In English, bastille can mean “prison” or “jail.” The same root gave us the word bastion, meaning “stronghold.” In French, ​Bastille​ is pronounced \bah-steey\, but in English it is nearly always pronounced \ba-STEEL\.

Tourists unclear on the concept can still sometimes be found on the site of the former prison asking for "directions to the Bastille."

8 things to know about Bastille Day

The French people will be celebrating their national pride today, July 14th. But there’s more to France than the delicious macarons and nutella-filled crepes. Here are some facts about la fête nationale:

1. Bastille Day is celebrated annually on July 14th to commemorate the historical Storming of the Bastille.

The Storming of the Bastille took place during the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. The 14th was also chosen because the following year, the French people celebrated the Fête de la Fédération, which was a day to commemorate the temporary unity of the French nation.

2. The Bastille was a royal fortress prison that became a symbol of the French people’s frustrations with the Bourbon monarchy.

At the time, the infamous Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were the King and Queen of France. They and their royal predecessors are known as the ancien regime or ancient regime. They were resented by the people of France, who were experiencing severe food shortages and felt like their government was against them. By storming the Bastille, the French people saw themselves as the liberators of their country.

3. During the “storming,” out of the 300 revolutionaries who rushed into the prison, 100 were killed or wounded by the guards protecting the prison.

The revolutionaries proved successful and Bernard-Jordan de Launay, the governor of the Bastille who launched the attack on the revolutionaries, was brought to Hotel de Ville, where he was murdered. This day marked the beginning of the end of the ancien regime.

4. During the day of the holiday, there is a large military parade that takes place along the Champs Elysées, the famous French avenue that runs from the Arc de Triomphe. It is the biggest parade that takes place in all of Europe.

During the 2015 parade, three different anti-terror squads marched in the parade to honor the 10,000 troops that helped secure safety in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

5. Among the celebrations, there is the Bals des pompiers or Fireman’s balls.

This tradition, which started in 1937, is carried out by fire stations opening their doors to host fundraising dance parties. The money collected goes to help funding of the fire stations all over France.

6. Similar to the spirit of America’s Independance Day, the French use fireworks to celebrate this day.

After a long day of various activities, the sky above the Eiffel Tower is lit up with a grand display of fireworks.

7. Bastille Day isn’t a celebration localized to France-- celebrations take place all over the world.

Two particularly large celebrations take place in New Orleans, where francophiles celebrate the holiday for a week long, and in New York City, where a block party takes place on 60th street.

8. The president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, attended the 2015 celebration in Paris.

Traditions of bastille day: how we celebrate our french national day 

Certain things are inevitably part of July 14 Bastille Day traditions in France: without them, the date would simply be a pale remembrance of past history.

But we are French and so we must celebrate, as with everything, in style.

Bastille Day fireworks

The main Bastille Day event across France is always the fireworks display, from Paris to the provinces and in every major city in-between. And every minor one. And every village. And even some back yards.

To many, this is a sign of rejoicing. To me, it is a dreaded evening of war-like noise, a burning smell and seriously whimpering dogs trying to squeeze their  bulks under my low furniture. 

That said, the use of fireworks to celebrate this day is a little odd — while this is somewhat a celebration of revolutionary fervour, it is in fact one of the few things left over from the French monarchy. Louis XIV loved fireworks and used them on every possible occasion, from weddings to baptisms, and they were launched at court for the enjoyment of the realm's Most Important People.

Fireworks disappeared along with the monarchy but made a comeback in the late 19th century, for entertainment but also to educate the public about the Third Republic and the new structures of the country. (You want to know about the Third Republic? Or all of French history, even? Here you go.)

As you might expect, the biggest and best firework displays take place in Paris, where each year brings in a new theme and the Eiffel Tower , if this is even possible, becomes ever more dazzling. (If I dare watch the festivities on television, I have to use headphones and avoid my dogs' suspicious gazes.) 

Below you'll find the amazing 2020 display!

Bastille Day military parade

This is also an institution and nowhere is Bastille Day history more evident.

The largest Bastille Day parade is, of course, in Paris, with representatives from each different military corps marching down the Champs-Elysées. The crowds are huge, and the President of France is present, along with every possible important politician who values his or her future career.

The best French parade: along the Champs-Elysees on Bastille Day

Throughout France, smaller parades take place, but I haven't seen any that begin to equal the pomp and circumstance of that of Paris on Bastille Day.

The 1880 parade, like the fireworks, started off as an educational tool of sorts, mostly to show the French (and the world) that although we lost the Franco-Prussian War a decade earlier, we were back on our feet, armed, equipped, and ready to fight again.

In 2020, the coronavirus epidemic made for a scaled down ceremony at the Place de la Concorde, with strict social distancing rules and by invitation only. However disappointing, it would be impossible to hold a larger parade safely, not only for spectators but also for the military personnel who have to spend up to two full weeks together in rehearsals before the main event.

Still, the jets flew, the fireworks soared, and everyone sang, after an emotional ceremony honouring the country's health care workers.

Village parties and a patriotic moment

Paris may be the queen of the parade but when it comes to actual celebration, no one does it better than a small town or village.

I have spent many a (pre-dog) 14 Juillet, as we call it here, on a village square, bedecked for the occasion, treating my ears to a local disco band tuning its instruments. Few French towns are quiet on this day: there are street fairs, bake-offs, bandstands and bands, speeches by mayors, dances for all ages,  with tables heaving with food and quite a few tipsy revellers having fun well before the festivities even start. 

If they're not on the village square, extended families gather in sun-drenched parks or on the beach with their relatives for an elaborate picnic, or a meal at home or in a restaurant. In the past a typical menu might have included heavy meats and dorioles, a rich pastry. These days, anything goes and with the crushing summer heat, the lighter the better. 

It is also perhaps the one time a year I get to sing La Marseillaise, our national anthem. (if you're curious about it, here's a video with the tune, but the lyrics are in French).

The 2020 festivities were cancelled in many small towns, including mine, and while I had prepared my dogs for the inevitable sound of rural village fireworks, none came.

Clogged roads

Don't laugh, but this is another tradition Bastille Day is known for. Traffic.

The Fête Nationale, as it’s also called, is the perfect excuse for a long weekend, often combined with summer holidays. The previous weekend is usually labelled ‘black’, a dangerous driving day during which everyone is enjoined, even begged to stay off the roads.

No one listens: it’s a holiday, after all, so the police is out in full force, radars overheat, and for once French drivers  stick (more or less) to the speed limit, not because they want to, but because it's too crowded to speed.

It is not a good day to be driving . (If you must drive, here are some driving tips for France to see you through not only Bastille Day but the rest of the year as well.)

If we had a French Independence Day, this would be IT. But since we were never fully colonized, the Bastille Day party will have to do.

And where we happen to be doesn't matter. The French celebrate Bastille Day everywhere, from Canada to Australia to the South Pole.

Watch the video: Γαλλία: Η ημέρα της Βαστίλης (August 2022).