Bastille Day, formally la Fête Nationale or the National Celebration, is a French national holiday that celebrates the anniversary and symbolic victory of the storming of the Bastille, a grand medieval fortress turned state political prison, on July 14, 1789. Much like America’s Independence Day, le quatorze juillet or le 14 juillet (as it’s commonly referred to in France since they don’t use the term "Bastille Day”), is a holiday filled with cheerful revelry... it is France, after all... and celebrations of French culture and national pride.
Built in the 1300s, the Bastille Sainte Antoine, as it was formally known, was originally designed to protect the city of Paris in case of an attack by the English during the Hundred Years’ War. The 100-foot-high fortress, surrounded by an 80-foot-wide moat, went through many changes over the years. It began functioning as a prison in 1417 while continuing to function as a royal castle and home to the royal treasure. It was during the reign of Louis XIII that the role of the Bastille saw its greatest changes. Louis XIII (with the help of Cardinal de Richelieu) was the first to use the Bastille as a state prison... for wealthy, upper class felons... many of whom were activists. These upper class prisoners were able to have gourmet meals, visitors, warm baths, specialist doctors, books (and libraries built for them if necessary), their own furniture, and even their own servants! Pretty impressive privileges for a prisoner! Louis XIV continued this practice of housing wealthy convicts, especially those accused of spying on or embezzling from the state. He was also fond of imprisoning those that opposed or simply irritated him, like French Protestants with religious views that differed from his. Under the reign of Louis XV, there began a decline in the number of prisoners sentenced to the Bastille, and the majority of those imprisoned under Louis XVI were social misfits instead of upper class members of French society. The Marquis de Sade, the writer and philosopher Voltaire, Nicolas Fouquet, and the "Man in the Iron Mask" were among the most famous inmates of the Bastille during the reigns of the Fab Four Kings.
La prise de la Bastille, Jean-Pierre Houël, 1788
Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix, 1830, Louvre, Paris, France
By the late 18th century, the French people, discontent with King Louis XVI’s abuse of royal power, were desperately poor and suffering from the hardships of famine (caused by two decades of poor harvests), drought, cattle disease, and soaring bread prices. Fighting for liberté, fraternité, and égalité, an armed mob of about 1000 Parisians expressed their desperation and resentment toward the tyrannical Bourbon monarchy by rioting and storming the Bastille to steal weapons and ammunition, as well as free the seven French citizens (four forgers, two crazy twits, and a count convicted of sex crimes) that were imprisoned in the notorious royal prison — supposedly for speaking out against the powerful monarchy? Hmmm... That historic bloody encounter marked the start of the French Revolution and the end of the Ancien Régime — and also led to the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The demolition of the Bastille began almost immediately and by November of the same year there was hardly anything remaining. Individual stones were taken away as souvenirs with a good bit of stones used in the construction of the Pont de la Concorde bridge across the River Seine.
Bastille Day military parade on the Champs Élysées, Paris, Jérémy Barande, July 14, 2010
Today, Bastille Day is celebrated all over France, not just in Paris. A patriotic day filled with plenty of pomp and circumstance, traditions include feasts with friends and family, music, dancing, fireworks, and the signature event — the grand military parade that marches down the Champs Élysées with Air Force jets flying overhead. A tradition that dates back to 1880, the parade is the oldest and largest military parade in the world and is led by the President of France. It starts at the Arc de Triomphe and ends at the Place de la Concorde.
Nine Alpha Jets from the French Air Force fly over the Champs-Elysées, Joe deSousa, July 14, 2017
While the grandest parade takes place in Paris, many smaller towns host their own and families and friends gather afterwards for a midday feast worthy of a king. The menu is lighter compared to winter holidays and includes quiches, salads, and crusty baguettes instead of raclette or beef bourgonion. Classic steak frites paired with frisée salad and haricots verts are also favorites. A tarte tatin is often served for dessert, along with blue, white, and red macarons. Wine and champagne flow freely. Firemen of many small villages host dances known as Bals des Pompiers (Fireman's Balls) in town squares to raise money for their fire stations, and le drapeau bleu, blanc, rouge flies proudly as people gather to dance the night away. At nightfall, spectacular fireworks shows light up the skies across the country, especially the Parisian night sky. This year's theme is Liberty.
Bastille Day fireworks, Yann Caradec, July 14, 2017
Though Bastille Day is a French holiday, Americans, French expats, and Francophiles across the US (and other parts of the world) will gather together to celebrate France's freedom from tyranny. So get out your berets and bubbly, and join in the celebration! I'll drink to that!
Joyeux Quatorze Juillet!
When this self-described Francophile is not reading or writing about all things French, she's dreaming up charming new ways to showcase Lolo French Antiques et More or traveling to France with Lolo to buy delightful treasures for their store. Mimi, Lolo, and their new French Bulldog, Duke, live in Birmingham, AL.