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why do the french celebrate bastille day on July 14th?

Bastille Day fireworks

If you happen to be in France in mid-summer, you'll notice the gradual emergence of French flags wherever you go. It will start with military statues on village squares, then the town halls, and eventually people's balconies. This is the one time of year where being openly patriotic is not necessarily a sign of extreme right-wing tendencies but a reminder that France has plenty to celebrate.

The 14th of July is our national French day, when we commemorate the storming of the Bastille medieval fortress by the good citizens of Paris, launching the French Revolution and eliminating those pesky Bourbon monarchs. Right?

Wrong.

The Bastille was indeed stormed on the 14 of July, but there’s a lot more to that story.

In fact, our so-called Bastille Day celebrates TWO July the 14s, one in 1789 and the other in 1790, but more on that in a minute.

To add mud to the waters, France didn't even decide to make July 14 Bastille Day until a full century had passed.

So yes, 14 July is France’s national holiday, but not just because of the Bastille.

celebrating bastille day: but WHICH 14th of july?

What is the difference, you ask?

And why were we not told this, as children? Why were we fed the wrong story about our most important holiday? Perhaps our little minds were too fragile to understand?

We don't like being fooled...

The taking of the Bastille : 14 July 1789

So let's go back to 1789, when crops failed, taxes weighed heavily on the poorest and unemployment was at an all-time high (while Versailles danced, of course).

Louis XVI (Marie-Antoinette's husband) called in the États Généraux, or Estates General, a sort of lopsided Parliament in which representatives of three groups — nobility, clergy and commoners — shared power. It sounds grander than it was, because the king could dismiss it on a whim so it had little power.

Estates General engravingEngraving by Isidore-Stanislaus Helman (1743–1806): L'Ouverture des États Généraux à Versailles le 5 Mai 1789, "Opening of the Estates-General in Versailles 5 May 1789"

But things deteriorated quickly. I won't go into too much detail but just know that the commoners took over and swore to give France a constitution. The king called in a bunch of foreign mercenaries, the popular minister of finance was dismissed, and skirmishes broke out between citizens and some of the foreign troops, whom Parisians thought had been brought in to arrest their representatives. Confused? All you really need to remember is that Parisians were angry.

So of course they set out to look for weapons. They ended up at the Bastille, where the gunpowder was stored, and stormed the building, an act that would eventually become the symbol of the French Revolution.

storming of the bastilleThe Storming of the Bastille, by the neo-classical painter Jean-Pierre Houël

As a little aside, I should mention that this is one example of history hanging by a thread: the Bastille was found nearly empty and there was no one to liberate; the king had in any case planned to raze it and replace it with a majestic square (named after him, of course); and soldiers defending the Bastille refused to use their well-loaded canons against the mob, which made their takeover a lot easier.

As you can see, things could easily have turned out quite differently.

Federation Day : 14 July 1790

A year later, France was having a feel-good moment and chose July 14th to celebrate its newfound unity.

Representatives from across the nation tried to heal their wounds in a grand reconciliation and swore allegiance to the nation, the constitution and the king (he would still be around for another three years before he was executed in 1793).

In the end, this grand reconciliation would last less than a year, and the royal family would attempt to escape (unsuccessfully), pushing France towards an era of terror that would cost many lives.

And how in France, Bastille Day and Federation Day came together

When in 1880 the government finally passed a law choosing July 14th as France's  national holiday, nowhere were the Bastille or the Federation (symbol of the so-called reconciliation) mentioned. In the end, 14 July was chosen as France's national day because the Senate, who was debating such things, couldn't agree any other date — but they at least had a clear idea of why this particular day would be a good idea.

ROUGHLY TRANSLATED EXCERPT OF THE SENATE REPORT, 29 June 1880

"Let us remember that the 14th of July 1789 that saw the taking of the Bastille, was followed by another 14th of July, which consecrated the previous one through support of France as a whole... This second 14th of July, which shed not a drop of blood or a single tear, is the day of the Great Federation, which we hope no one will refuse to join. In this way we will renew it and perpetuate it, like the symbol of the fraternal union of all the parties of France and of all the citizens of France in freedom and equality." Or something along these lines.

So since 1789, we've been celebrating July 14 every year, right?

Wrong again.

Celebrations were held for a few years, but then...  Here's what happened between the two 14th of July(s) and the eventual decision, a full century later, to make this our national holiday:

  • 1799: the day's theme shifted from freedom to mere concord and was celebrated with a simple military parade
  • 1800: a scaled-down parade took place along the Tuileries in Paris
  • 1804: 14 July was replaced by 15 August, Napoleon's birthday
  • 1814: after a brief restoration of the monarchy, 25 August, the birthday of Saint-Louis, became the celebrated date
  • 1824: after Louis XVIII's death and under Charles X, 24 May was celebrated, in honour of his namesake, Saint Charles
  • 1830: another revolution and a new king (with revolutionary leanings) turned all of July into a national celebration
  • 1851: the second Empire, with Napoleon's nephew (Napoleon III) at the helm, and we were back to celebrating 15 August, Napoleon I's birthday
  • and slowly, France returned to republicanism, paving the way for the decision to make 14 July the national day — for good.

If the 14th of July date was finally agreed during those hectic Senate discussions of 1880, it's because of its dual symbolism: the date speaks to everyone, from revolutionaries to royalists, and frankly, who cares which year it refers to?

Either way, though, it's a party.

If you'd like to brush up on your French Revolution, two recommended books are Citizens by Simon Schama and The French Revolution by Ian Davidson.

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.

Paris Bastille Day - military paradeThe 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.

It just reminds us of who we are.

French Bastille Day parade
France Bastille Day attack - pin
July 14 French National Day celebrations - Eiffel Tower

—Updated 15 July 2020