Bastille Day is the French national holiday and is celebrated on the 14th July each year. It is called “Fête Nationale” in France and also more commonly “le quatorze juillet”.
The Storming of the Bastille
Bastille Day commemorates the 1790 “Fête de la Fédération”, held on the first anniversary of the dismantlement of the Bastille fortress on 14 July 1789. The Storming of the Bastille was an important symbol of a new era in the country and preceded the First Republic.
The Storming of the Bastille took place on the morning of the 14th July 1789 by a revolutionary mob from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. Attacking the Bastille represented a symbolic act against royal authority in central Paris. By late afternoon its seven prisoners were freed. This first act of the French Revolution quickly became a major date in French history.
The fortified prison was dismantled between the 14th July 1789 and the 14th July 1790 and its stones partly used to build the Pont de la Concorde. 83 of its stones were carved into small Bastille replicas before being sent to the provinces. It was situated in the site of the present-day Place de la Bastille.
La Fête de la Fédération
In fact Bastille Day or ‘la Fête Nationale’ does not directly commemorate the storming of the Bastille but the ‘Fête de la Fédération’ which took place on the Champ de Mars on the 14th July 1790. On that day, tens of thousands of Parisians gathered to celebrate the unity of the new French Nation and the national reconciliation of its people.
It was the National Assembly who organised a ‘general federation’ based on the suggestion of the Commune of Paris.
On that occasion, Jean Sylvain Bailly, mayor of Paris declared: “We suggest that this meeting (…) be sworn on the next 14 July, which we shall all see as the time of liberty: this day shall be spent swearing to uphold and defend it“.
Charon, President of the Commune of Paris, stated the famous motto: “Frenchmen, we are free! Frenchmen, we are brothers!“.
In 1790 the Champ-de-Mars was quite far outside the centre of Paris and a vast stadium was set up with the help of thousands of volunteers from the region. On each side of the field were built earth steps for 100,000 spectators. The recently-built Ecole Militaire (military school) was used to welcome members of the National Assembly. Right in front of it was set up a huge tent to house the king’s step. On the other side of the Champ-de-Mars (where the Eiffel Tower now stands), was built a triumphal arch. An altar for the celebration was set up at the centre of the Champ-de-Mars. Called ‘Autel de la Patrie’ (the Nation’s Altar), it was a symbol of civility and of the nation during the French Revolution.
A delegation from the United States was present at the Champ-de-Mars led by John Paul Jones, founder of the US Navy. It was the first time in history that the US flag was flown outside the United States.
Despite a strong rain, a large number of persons gathered together. The mass was celebrated by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, bishop of Autun (who did not hide the fact that he was atheist!) and 300 priests. The king Louis XVI arrived from the castle of Saint-Cloud.
The marquis de La Fayette, captain of the National Guard, came riding a white horse. Once on the altar he was the first to take an oath in the name of the Federated National Guards:
“Nous jurons de rester 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 protéger conformément aux lois la sûreté des personnes et des propriétés, la circulation des grains et des subsistances dans l’intérieur du royaume, la prescription des contributions publiques sous quelque forme qu’elle existe, et de demeurer unis à tous les Français par les liens indissolubles de la fraternité.”
We swear forever to be 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 protect according to the laws the safety of people and properties, transit of grains and food within the kingdom, the public contributions under whatever forms they might exist, and to stay united with all the French with the indestructible bounds of brotherhood.
Following the statement of the President of the National Assembly, the king took an oath of allegiance to the constitution:
“Moi, roi des Français, je jure d’employer le pouvoir qui m’est délégué par la loi constitutionnelle de l’État, à maintenir la Constitution décrétée par l’Assemblée nationale et acceptée par moi et à faire exécuter les lois.”
I, King of the French, I swear to use the power given to me by the constitutional law of the State, to maintain the Constitution as decided by the National Assembly and accepted by myself, and to enforce the laws.
Then the crowd cheered and sang ‘Te Deum’. The celebration continued in many parts of Paris with balls where people danced, sang and toasted.
It was only from 1880 that the 14th July became the National Day of France at the suggestion of Benjamin Raspail.
The military parade
Among the festivities which are held the morning of 14 July, the largest is the military parade on the Champs-Elysées in Paris which dates back to 1880. 4,000 soldiers, 240 horses and 460 vehicles and some 100 aircrafts parade down the Champs-Elysées, from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, in front of the President of the Republic, the French government, foreign Paris-based ambassadors and other officials.
For many, the French parade is by far the largest and the oldest of that kind in the world. Surely, the setting of the Champs-Elysées contributes to its popularity as the avenue is large and long enough to host such an event.
Many of Paris’ world-famous landmarks also add a ‘magic touch’ to it: the Arc de Triomphe with a very large French flag floating under its arch, the Place de la Concorde with the traditional Presidential platform set up for the occasion, the Grande Arche de la Défense … and the Eiffel Tower which is never far away!
The parade is opened by cadets from the most prestigious French military schools (Ecole Polytechnique, Saint-Cyr and Ecole Navale). The future officers are then successively followed by military infantry troops, including the French Foreign Legion troops, motorised and armoured troops. One of the most awaited moment that delights old and young alike is the aerial parade in which hundreds of aircrafts and helicopters participate, especially the “Patrouille de France”. The impressive flypast is a unique event in the sky of Paris, as flying over the city is forbidden for security matters.
Parallel to the foot parade, the ceremonial flight of aircrafts perform along a straight line following the “Historical Axis” (La Défense, the Champs-Elysées and the Tuileries).
Since Mitterand’s presidential mandate, it has become a tradition to invite guest military troops from other allied nation-states of France: Morocco in 1999, the USA in 2002, the United Kingdom in 2004 (for the centenary of the Entente Cordiale), Brazil in 2005. In 1994, Mitterand’s invitation to German troops stirred up some memories as it was the first time German soldiers had paraded in France since World War 2! Another great occasion of reconciliation occurred in 2007 – President Sarkozy’s first parade – delegations from the 26 member-states of the European Union passed down the Champs-Elysées. Never before had such a gathering of European army delegations been organised, with the European flag flown and the European anthem played.
In 2015, Mexico will be the guest of honour for the parade with Mexican troops walking down the Champs-Élysées. The military parade will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2.
The Paris parade is arguably one of the most popular events in France to be broadcasted on French TV. It is an event when the French National Anthem (La Marseillaise) is proudly sung.
Beyond the parade: c’est la fête !
Until 2009, right after the Parade, a garden party was held at the Elysée Palace, hosted by the French President. In 2008, some 8,000 guests were invited from all over the country to join the party at the Presidential Palace.
But of course, Paris is not the only place to celebrate Bastille Day in France. From every city to every village, the “Fête Nationale” is the occasion for Bals Dansants, firework shows, local parades, or large-scale picnics.