Bastille Day

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Bastille Day
Bastille Day
The storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789

Bastille Day, Paris, 2017 (36127738205).jpg
The aerobatic team of the French Air Force

Also called French National Day
(Fête nationale)
The Fourteenth of July
(Quatorze juillet)
Observed by France
Type National day
Significance Commemorates the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789,[1] and the unity of the French people at the Fête de la Fédération on 14 July 1790
Date 14th July
Celebrations Military parades, fireworks, concerts, balls

Bastille Day is the common name given in English-speaking countries to the national day of France, which is celebrated on July 14 each year. In French, it is formally called la Fête nationale ("The National Celebration") and commonly and legally le 14 juillet ("the 14th of July").

The French National Day is the anniversary of Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, a turning point of the French Revolution, as well as the Fête de la Fédération which celebrated the unity of the French people on July 14, 1790. Celebrations of French culture are held throughout France. In Paris, a military parade is held on the morning on the Champs-Élysées in front of the President of the Republic, along with other French officials. The occasion is often used to invite guests from other countries, especially on occasions that mark anniversaries of cooperation with France.


Storming of the Bastille

The Storming of the Bastille (French: Prise de la Bastille) occurred in Paris, France, on the afternoon of July 14, 1789. The fortress-prison held a large cache of ammunition and gunpowder. It contained only seven inmates at the time, but was seen by the revolutionaries as a symbol of the monarchy's abuse of power; its fall was the flashpoint of the French Revolution.

During the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major economic crisis, caused in part by the cost of intervening in the American Revolution and exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation.[2] On May 5, 1789, the Estates General of 1789 convened to deal with this issue, but were held back by archaic protocols and the conservatism of the Second Estate representing the nobility[3] who made up less than 2 percent of France's population.[2]

On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate, with its representatives drawn from the commoners, reconstituted themselves as the National Assembly, a body whose purpose was the creation of a French constitution. The king initially opposed this development, but was forced to acknowledge the authority of the assembly, which renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9. On July 11, 1789, Louis XVI—acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council—dismissed and banished his finance minister, Jacques Necker (who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate) and completely reconstructed the finance ministry.

Many Parisians presumed Louis' actions to be the start of a royal coup by the conservatives and began open rebellion when they heard the news the next day. They were also afraid that Royal soldiers had been summoned to shut down the National Constituent Assembly, which was meeting at Versailles. The Assembly went into nonstop session to prevent eviction from their meeting place once again. Paris was soon consumed with riots and widespread looting.

Bronze relief of a memorial dedicated to Bastille Day.

On July 14, the people of Paris, fearful that they and their representatives would be attacked by the royal army or by foreign regiments of mercenaries in the king's service, and seeking to gain ammunition and gunpowder for the general populace, stormed the Bastille. The Bastille was a fortress-prison in Paris which had often held people jailed on the basis of lettres de cachet (literally "signet letters"), arbitrary royal indictments that could not be appealed and did not indicate the reason for the imprisonment. Known for holding political prisoners whose writings had displeased the royal government, it was thus a symbol of the absolutism of the monarchy. As it happened, at the time of the attack in July 1789 there were only seven inmates, none of great political significance.[2]

Reinforced by mutinous Gardes Françaises ("French Guards"), whose usual role was to protect public buildings, the mob proved a fair match for the fort's defenders, and Governor de Launay, the commander of the Bastille, capitulated and opened the gates to avoid a mutual massacre. However, possibly because of a misunderstanding, fighting resumed. According to official documents, about 100 attackers and just one defender died in the initial fighting. In the aftermath, de Launay and three other defenders were killed, as was Jacques de Flesselles, the prévôt des marchands ("provost of the merchants"), the elected head of the city's guilds, who under the feudal monarchy also had the competences of a present-day mayor.[4]

Shortly after the storming of the Bastille, late in the evening of August 4, after a very stormy session of the Assemblée constituante, feudalism was abolished. On August 26, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen) was proclaimed (Homme with an uppercase h meaning "human", while homme with a lowercase h means "man").[4]

Fête de la Fédération

Fête de la Fédération, Musée de la Révolution française

As early as 1789, the year of the storming of the Bastille, preliminary designs for a national festival were underway. These designs were intended to strengthen the country's national identity through a celebration of the events of July 14, 1789. The official festival sponsored by the National Assembly was called the Fête de la Fédération.[5]

The Fête held on July 14, 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. The event took place on the Champ de Mars, which was located far outside of Paris at the time. The work needed was not on schedule to be completed in time. On the day recalled as the Journée des brouettes ("The Day of the Wheelbarrow"), thousands of Parisian citizens gathered together to finish the construction needed to transform the Champ de Mars into a suitable location for the celebration.[6]

On the day of the festival, the National Guard assembled and proceeded along the boulevard du Temple in the pouring rain, and were met by an estimated 260,000 Parisian citizens at the Champ de Mars.[6] A mass was celebrated by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, bishop of Autun under the ancien régime.

Lafayette leading the oath (18th c. oil painting, Musée Carnavalet)

At this time, the first French Constitution was not yet completed, and it would not be officially ratified until September 1791. But the gist of it was understood by everyone, and no one was willing to wait. Lafayette led the President of the National Assembly and all the deputies in a solemn oath to the coming Constitution:

We swear to be forever faithful to the Nation, to the Law and to the King, to uphold with all our might the Constitution as decided by the National Assembly and accepted by the King, and to remain united with all French people by the indissoluble bonds of brotherhood.[7]

The Fête de la Fédération as seen from behind the King's tent, by Isidore Stanislas Helman (1790)

Afterwards, Louis XVI took a similar vow:

I, King of the French, swear to use the power given to me by the constitutional act of the State, to maintain the Constitution as decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by myself.[8]

The title "King of the French," used here for the first time instead of "King of France (and Navarre)", was an innovation intended to inaugurate a popular monarchy which linked the monarch's title to the people rather than the territory of France.[9] The Queen Marie Antoinette then rose and showed the Dauphin, future Louis XVII, saying, "This is my son, who, like me, joins in the same sentiments."[10]

At this relatively calm stage of the Revolution, many people considered the country's period of political struggle to be over. This thinking was encouraged by counter-revolutionary monarchiens, and this first fête was designed with a role for King Louis XVI that would respect and maintain his royal status. The occasion passed peacefully and provided a powerful, but illusory, image of celebrating national unity after the divisive events of 1789–1790.

The festival organizers welcomed delegations from countries around the world, including the recently established United States. John Paul Jones, Thomas Paine, and other Americans unfurled their Stars and Stripes at the Champ de Mars, the first instance of the flag being flown outside of the United States.[11]

After the end of the official celebration, the day ended in a huge four-day popular feast. In the gardens of the Château de La Muette, a meal was offered to more than 20,000 participants, followed by much singing, dancing, and drinking.

Origin of the current celebration

Claude Monet, Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of June 30, 1878

On June 30, 1878, a feast was officially arranged in Paris to honor the French Republic (the event was commemorated in a painting by Claude Monet).[12] On July 14, 1879, there was another feast, with a semi-official aspect. The day's events included a reception in the Chamber of Deputies, organised and presided over by Léon Gambetta,[13] a military review, and a Republican Feast in the Pré Catelan.[14] Le Figaro wrote that "people feasted much to honor the storming of the Bastille."[15]

In the 1870s a campaign for the reinstatement of the festival as a national holiday was sponsored by the notable politician Léon Gambetta and scholar Henri Baudrillant.[6] There were many disputes over which date to be remembered as the national holiday, including August 4 (the commemoration of the end of the feudal system), May 5 (when the Estates-General first assembled), July 27 (the fall of Robespierre), and January 21 (the date of Louis XVI's execution).[6] On May 21, 1880, Benjamin Raspail proposed a law, signed by sixty-four members of government, to have "the Republic adopt July 14 as the day of an annual national festival."

The government decided that the date of the holiday would be July 14, but it was still somewhat problematic. The events of July 14, 1789 were illegal under the previous government, which contradicted the Third Republic's need to establish legal legitimacy.[6] French politicians also did not want the sole foundation of their national holiday to be rooted in a day of bloodshed and class-hatred, as the day of storming the Bastille was. Instead, they based the establishment of the holiday as a dual celebration of the Fête de la Fédération, a festival celebrating the one year anniversary of July 14, 1789, and the storming of the Bastille.[16]

In the debate leading up to the adoption of the holiday, Senator Henri Martin, who wrote the National Day law,[16] addressed the chamber on June 29, 1880:

Do not forget that behind this 14 July, where victory of the new era over the Ancien Régime was bought by fighting, do not forget that after the day of 14 July 1789, there was the day of 14 July 1790 (...) This [latter] day cannot be blamed for having shed a drop of blood, for having divided the country. It was the consecration of the unity of France (...) If some of you might have scruples against the first 14 July, they certainly hold none against the second. Whatever difference which might part us, something hovers over them, it is the great images of national unity, which we all desire, for which we would all stand, willing to die if necessary.[17]

Today, the celebration is formally called la Fête nationale ("The National Celebration") and commonly and legally le 14 juillet ("the 14th of July").[18]

Bastille Day Celebrations today

French Alpha jets flyover Bastille Day parade in Paris, July 14, 2017

Bastille Day today celebrates French culture. As a national public holiday, schools, government offices, and many businesses are closed allowing people participate in public celebrations. These events, held in Paris and other cities, may include a parade, dancing, as well as communal meals, parties and a spectacular fireworks display.

Of particular note is the military parade in Paris which is broadcast on French television. It is opened by the French president and includes service men and women of various units, the Paris Fire Brigade, and a fly-past by planes and helicopters of the French Air Force and Naval Air Force. Smaller military parades are held in French garrison cites (most notably Marseille, Toulon, Brest, and Belfort).

Bastille Day military parade

Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Élysées, Paris, 2010.
Foreign Legion
1st infantry regiment of the Republican Guard
Horseman of the Republican Guard during the 2007 military parade on the Champs-Élysées
Bastille Day 2017 military parade in Paris

Originally a popular feast, Bastille day became militarized during the Directory or Directorate (le Directoire), a five-member committee that governed France from November 2, 1795, when it replaced the Committee of Public Safety, until November 9, 1799, when it was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte. Under Napoleon, the celebration lost much of its importance, though it came back into fashion during the Third Republic.

The Fourteenth of July became the official national celebration on June 28, 1880, and a decree of July 6 the same year linked a military parade to it. Between 1880 and 1914 the celebrations were held at the Longchamp Racecourse in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris.

Since World War I the parade has been held on the Champs-Élysées, the first occasion being the défilé de la Victoire ("Victory parade") led by Marshals Joseph Joffre, Ferdinand Foch, and Philippe Pétain on July 14, 1919. This was not however a French National Holiday parade, although held upon the same date, but one agreed upon by the Allied delegations to the Versailles Peace Conference. Detachments from all of France's World War I allies took part in the parade, together with colonial and North African units from France's overseas Empire.[19] A separate Victory parade of Allied troops was held in London four days later.[20]

In the Second World War, the German troops occupying Paris and Northern France paraded along the same route. A victory parade under General de Gaulle was held in 1945 upon the restoration of Paris to French rule. Within the period of occupation by the Germans a company of the commando Kieffer of the Forces Navales Françaises Libres had continued the French National Holiday parade in the streets of London.

Under Valéry Giscard d'Estaing the parade route was changed each year with troops marching down from the Place de la Bastille to the Place de la République to commemorate popular outbreaks of the French Revolution.[21] Under Presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac the parade route returned to the Champs-Elysées where it continues to be held.

In recent years the parade has started with military bands from the French Armed Forces taking the stage with band exhibitions and drill shows, sometimes including displays from foreign service troops and mounted units; plus military and civil choirs singing classic French patriotic songs. This opening ends with the playing of La Marseillaise, the National Anthem of France.

The parade follows with foot soldiers, including army Infantry; troupes de Marine; Air; Gendarmerie, including the French Republican Guard; and occasionally non-military police and fire units. The French Foreign Legion always brings up the rear of this part of the parade, because their ceremonial marching pace is slower than that of other French infantry units. Motorized and armored troops follow, with the popular Paris Fire Brigade (which is a military unit in the French Army) traditionally bringing up the rear.

Passing down the Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe the troops reach the Place de la Concorde, where the President of the French Republic, his government, and foreign ambassadors to France stand.

At the same time, above the Champs-Elysées, the flypast continues with French Air Force and Naval Air Force planes and helicopters, and aircraft from the National Gendarmerie, the Interior Ministry's Civil Security Air Service and the various fire-fighting units nationwide, ending with a parachute display by selected parachutists from the French Armed Forces.

Special Anniversary Celebrations

  • 1989: France celebrated the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, notably with a monumental show on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, directed by French designer Jean-Paul Goude. President François Mitterrand acted as host for invited world leaders.[22]
  • 1994: Troops of the Eurocorps, including German soldiers, paraded on the invitation of François Mitterrand. The event was seen as symbolic of both European integration, and German-French reconciliation.[23]
  • 2004: To commemorate the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, the British led the military parade with the Red Arrows flying overhead.[24]
  • 2007: To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the military parade was led by troops from the 27 EU member states, all marching at the French time.[25]
  • 2014: To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning to the First World War, representatives of 80 countries who fought during this conflict were invited to the ceremony. The military parade was opened by 76 flags representing each of these countries.[26]
  • 2017: To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the United States of America's entry into the First World War and the long-standing partnership between the countries, U.S. service members marched in the Bastille Day parade in Paris, as smoke trails billow overhead from a flyover conducted by French Alpha jets.

Bastille Day celebrations in other countries

Many other countries also celebrate Bastille Day, especially those with large French communities or specific ties to France.

For example, Liège in Wallonia, the French speaking region of Belgium has celebrated Bastille Day each year since the end of the First World War, as Liège was decorated by the Légion d'Honneur for its unexpected resistance during the Battle of Liège.[27] Specifically in Liège, celebrations of Bastille Day have been known to be bigger than the celebrations of the Belgian National holiday. The city also hosts a fireworks show outside of Congress Hall and many unofficial events celebrate the relationship between France and the city of Liège.[28]

When France annexed a large portion of what is now French Polynesia in 1881, following a lengthy struggle with British colonialists and Protestant missionaries, Tahitians were permitted to participate in sport, singing, and dancing competitions one day a year: Bastille Day.[29] The single day of celebration evolved into the major Heiva i Tahiti festival in Papeete Tahiti, where traditional events such as canoe races, tattooing, singing and dancing competitions, and fire walks are held.[30]

Countries such as Canada, especially in Quebec, who have significant French populations sponsor major celebrations on Bastille Day. The Unites States has numerous cities, including New Orleans with its French Creole roots, that conduct annual celebrations of Bastille Day. The different cities celebrate with many French staples such as food, music, games, and sometimes the recreation of famous French landmarks.


  1. La fête nationale du 14 juillet "The national holiday of July 14") Official Website of Elysée. Retrieved July 17, 2019.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Vintage, 1990, ISBN 0679726101).
  3. Munro Price, The Road from Versailles: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Fall of the French Monarchy (St. Martin's Griffin, 2004, ISBN 0312326130).
  4. 4.0 4.1 Jules Isaac, L'époque révolutionnaire 1789–1851 (Paris: Hachette, 1950).
  5. Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink and Rolf Reichardt, The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom (Duke University Press Books, 1997, ISBN 0822319020).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Christopher Prendergast, The Fourteenth of July and the Taking of the Bastille (Profile Books, 2009, ISBN 1861979398).
  7. Nous jurons d'être à jamais fidèles à la nation, à la loi et au roi, de maintenir de tout notre pouvoir la Constitution décrétée par l'Assemblée nationale et acceptée par le roi et de demeurer unis à tous les Français par les liens indissolubles de la fraternité. François-Auguste-Alexis Mignet, Historie de la revolution francaise depuis 1789 jusqu'en 1814 (Wentworth Press, 2018, ISBN 0341075140).
  8. Moi, roi des Français, je jure d'employer tout le pouvoir qui m'est délégué par l'acte constitutionnel de l'état, à maintenir la constitution décrétée par l'Assemblée nationale et acceptée par moi. François-Auguste-Alexis Mignet, Historie de la revolution francaise depuis 1789 jusqu'en 1814 (Wentworth Press, 2018, ISBN 0341075140).
  9. Indicative of a constitutional monarchy rather than an absolute one, the style "King of the French" was in effect 1791–1792 and was revived after the July Revolution in 1830.
  10. Voilà mon fils, il s'unit, ainsi que moi, aux mêmes sentiments. Antoine Bonifacio and Paul Maréchal, La France, l'Europe et le monde, de 1715 à 1870 (Paris: Hachette, 1965).
  11. Harlow Giles Unger, Lafayette (Wiley, 2007, ISBN 047144586X).
  12. Natalie Adamson, Painting, Politics and the Struggle for the École de Paris, 1944–1964 (Routledge, 2009, ISBN 0754659283).
  13. Philip Nord, Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge, 2000, ISBN 0415206952).
  14. Philip Nord, The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France (Harvard University Press, 1995, ISBN 0674762711).
  15. On a beaucoup banqueté avant-hier, en mémoire de la prise de la Bastille, et comme tout banquet suppose un ou plusieurs discours, on a aussi beaucoup parlé. Paris Au Jour Le Jour Le Figaro, July 16, 1879. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Hugh Schofield, Bastille Day: How peace and revolution got mixed up BBC News, July 14, 2013. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  17. Le Quatorze Juillet Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  18. Article L. 3133-3 of French labour code Retrieved July 17, 2019.
  19. Alistair Horne, To Lose a Battle – France 1940 (Penguin Books, 2007, ISBN 0141030658).
  20. Peace Day, 19 July 1919 Aftermath, June 11, 2011. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  21. Le 14 juillet France-Diplomatie. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  22. R.C. Longworth, French Shoot The Works With Soaring Bicentennial French Chicago Tribune, July 15, 1989. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  23. Le 14 Juillet Présidence de la Républic. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  24. Philip Delves Broughton, Best of British lead the way in parade for Bastille Day The Telegraph, July 15, 2004. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  25. The 14th of July: Bastille Day French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  26. Bastille Day in pictures: Soldiers from 76 countries march down Champs-Elysees The Telegraph, July 14, 2014. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  27. Travel Picks: Top 10 Bastille Day celebrations Reuters, July 13, 2012. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  28. An unusual Bastille Day: in Liège, Belgium Eurofluence, July 19, 2014. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  29. The Best Festival You've Never Heard Of: The Heiva in Tahiti X Days in Y. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  30. David Trumper, 7 places outside France where Bastille Day is celebrated, July 11, 2014. Retrieved July 16, 2019.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adamson, Natalie. Painting, Politics and the Struggle for the École de Paris, 1944–1964. Routledge, 2009. ISBN 0754659283
  • Bonifacio, Antoine, and Paul Maréchal. La France, l'Europe et le monde, de 1715 à 1870. Paris: Hachette, 1965. OCLC 679992827
  • Hanson, Paul R. Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Scarecrow Press, 2004. ISBN 0810850524
  • Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. William Morrow and Co., 1999. ISBN 0688169783
  • Isaac, Jules. L'époque révolutionnaire 1789–1851. Paris: Hachette, 1950.
  • Lüsebrink, Hans-Jürgen, and Rolf Reichardt. The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom. Duke University Press Books, 1997. ISBN 0822319020
  • Mignet, François-Auguste-Alexis. Historie de la revolution francaise depuis 1789 jusqu'en 1814 Wentworth Press, 2018. ISBN 0341075140
  • Nord, Philip. The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France. Harvard University Press, 1995. ISBN 0674762711
  • Nord, Philip. Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century. Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0415206952
  • Prendergast, Christopher. The Fourteenth of July and the Taking of the Bastille. Profile Books, 2009. ISBN 1861979398
  • Price, Munro. The Road from Versailles: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Fall of the French Monarchy. St. Martin's Griffin, 2004. ISBN 0312326130
  • Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Vintage, 1990. ISBN 0679726101
  • Unger, Harlow Giles. Lafayette. Wiley, 2007. ISBN 047144586X

External links

All links retrieved September 20, 2023.


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