July 14th is Bastille Day in France. It symbolizes the end of the Monarchy and the beginning of what is called the First French Republic (today, we are in the Fifth Republic). The Bastille, a prison at the time, was stormed on July 14th, 1789. This event came to represent the end of the king’s power (Louis XVI) and the transfer of power to the people.
Today, Bastille Day is a national holiday and a day of celebration, which takes the form of military parades and fireworks. The most famous military parade takes place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris and has all the pomp and pageantry you would expect. The Republican Guard – The French President’s personal guards, leads the parade. Bastille Day and the days leading up to it are one of the few times when you will see the French flag everywhere. In general, the French are very low-key about their flag, only showing it off on special days like Bastille Day.
Arc de Triomphe in Paris
The storming of the Bastille:
Paris was in a state of high agitation in the early months of the French Revolution. In Spring 1789, the Estates-General refused to dissolve, transforming itself instead into a constituent National Assembly. In July, King Louis XVI called in fresh troops and dismissed his popular Minister, Necker. On the morning of July 14, the people of Paris seized weapons from the armoury at the Invalides and then marched in the direction of an ancient Royal fortress, the Bastille. After a bloody round of firing, the crowd broke into the Bastille and released the handful of prisoners held there.
The storming of the Bastille signalled the first victory of the people of Paris against a symbol of the “Ancien Régime” (old regime). Indeed, the edifice was razed to the ground in the months that followed.
The Fête de la Fédération (“Feast of the Federations”) held on July 14, 1790, celebrated with great pomp the first Anniversary of the insurrection.
The national holiday:
The commemoration of July 14 was abandoned in subsequent years. Under the Third Republic, however, leaders (Gambetta especially) cast about for ways to celebrate the foundations of the regime. A Deputy for the Seine Department, Benjamin Raspail, moved that July 14 be named the national holiday of the Republic, and Parliament passed an act to that effect on July 6, 1880.
From the outset, the emphasis was on the patriotic and military character of the event, expressing France’s recovery from the defeat of 1870. Every commune or locality in France holds its own celebration, starting with a torchlight parade on the evening of the 13th. The next morning, church bells or gun salutes announce the military parade, which is followed by a lunch, spectacles and games, with dancing and fireworks to end the day.
Coming after the austerity of the 1914-18 war, the 14th of July 1919 was the occasion of a great victory celebration. Similarly, July 14, 1945 was preceded by three days of civic rejoicing.
The 14th of July today:
Today, the festivities of July 14 are as popular as ever.
Successive Presidents of the Fifth Republic have modified the day’s events slightly. Restoring the tradition of revolutionary Paris, President Giscard d’Estaing re-routed the military parade, marching the troops from the Place de la Bastille to the Place de la République.
Under President François Mitterrand, the “La Marseillaise” night-time parade organized by Jean-Paul Goude on July 14, 1989, watched by numerous foreign heads of State, was a high point in the celebrations of the bicentenary of the French revolution.
In 1994, German soldiers serving in the Eurocorps took part in the parade on the Champs-Elysées, symbolizing the reconciliation between the two Nations.
Since the election of President Chirac, young people from all over France, as well as members of the armed forces, have been invited to attend the reception given after the parade in the grounds of the Elysée Palace.