What makes Bastille Day so special to the French? Mainly because this is the French national holiday! The celebration takes place on the 14th of July each year. The French call it “Fête Nationale” and also more commonly “le quatorze juillet”.
The Storming of the Bastille
Bastille Day commemorates the 1790 “Fête de la Fédération”. This celebration took place 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. It preceded the First Republic.
The Storming of the Bastille happened on the morning of the 14th July 1789 by a revolutionary mob from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. In fact, 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. Did you know that its stones were partly used to build the Pont de la Concorde? 83 stones were carved into small Bastille replicas before being sent to the provinces. The fortress 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. It was about the ‘Fête de la Fédération’ which took place on the Champ de Mars on the 14th of 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 that 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!”
100,000 spectators on the Champ-de-Mars!
In 1790 the Champ-de-Mars was quite far outside the centre of Paris. It was a convenient place of gathering and a vast stadium was set up with the help of thousands of volunteers. They built earth steps for 100,000 spectators on each side of the field.
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. King Louis XVI arrived from the castle of Saint-Cloud.
La Fayette’s oath to the nation
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 bonds of brotherhood.
The King’s oath
Following the statement of the President of the National Assembly, king Louis XVI 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 Bastille Day military parade
Among the festivities which are held the morning of 14 July, the largest event is the military parade. Dating back to 1880, it takes place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris.
In 2019, the military parade involved:
- 4,298 soldiers
- 196 vehicles
- 270 riders of the Republican Guard
- 67 aircrafts
- 40 helicopters
- 1,200 metres of the parade
- a length of 2 hours (review, parade, final)
They are seen parading 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 course of the parade
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 moments that delight old and young alike is the aerial parade. Hundreds of aircraft and helicopters participate, especially the “Patrouille de France”. An 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 aircraft performs along a straight line following the “Historical Axis” (La Défense, the Champs-Elysées and the Tuileries).
In 2019 the display included a man rocketing through the air on a flyboard device. A stunning invention of French former jet-skiing champion Franky Zapata.
Bastille Day guests of honour
Since Mitterrand’s presidential mandate, it has become a tradition to invite guest military troops from other allied nation-states of France. A few memorable years:
- 1999: Morocco
- 2002: the USA
- 2004: the UK (for the centenary of the Entente Cordiale)
- 2005: Brazil
- 2007: Germany. In 1994, Mitterrand’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.
- 2015: Mexico. The military parade commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2.
- 2016: ANZAC troops (Australia and New Zealand)
- 2017: the US
- 2018: Japan and Singapore
- 2019: the European Intervention Initiative, a joint military pact of 10 countries created the previous year (Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the UK)
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.
The historic cancellation of the Bastille Day parade in 2020
In 2020, the French authorities decided the cancellation of the Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysées over coronavirus.
Due to social distancing norms, the parade is replaced with a ceremony to pay tribute to health workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
France was hit hard by the pandemic, killing almost 30,000 people.
The French president and officials will attend a much smaller military ceremony at the Place de la Concorde, where the parade normally ends.
The event will gather some 2,000 participants and 2,500 guests, in strict respect of social distancing rules.
The popular flypast will take place as usual and will be dedicated to medical personnel and all others “mobilised against the virus”.
After 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.
The Bastille Day fireworks at the Eiffel Tower were maintained in 2020. However, Parisians and visitors are invited to admire it from afar in strict respect of social distancing rules.
Local authorities in provincial cities such as Marseille or Toulouse have decided to cancel the 2020 fireworks. The display in Lyon should be maintained.
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.
For more info about the origins of Bastille Day, check out:
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