The Importance of Bastille Day in France

The Importance of Bastille Day

Find out the history behind Le quatorze juillet and why it’s widely celebrated in the U.S.

July 14, 2016

Today, France is celebrating July 14, better known as Bastille Day or Le quatorze juillet. Even though there are over 50 U.S. cities that conduct annual celebrations, few events emphasis the history behind the French holiday. I hope to shed some light on the importance of Bastille Day both for its history and personal significance to me and other native French speakers. 

The History of Bastille Day

It all started in 1789. France was a rich and prosperous country compared to its European neighbors, but the state was drowning in debt. Its lenders did not want to, nor could they afford to, lend France money. The American Independence War had left France flat out broke. Reforms were necessary, but the haute aristocratie (the financial elite), as well as the haute bourgeoisie (high nobility), did not accept them since they were a threat to their fiscal privileges. After more than 40 years of unsuccessful reforms and a popular upheaval, King Louis XVI—who could no longer pay for his spending—was forced to call on the trois ordres: the Catholic Church, the nobility and the common people. The date was May 5, 1789, in the city of Versailles.

Very quickly, the trois ordres realized that the core of the government’s problems called for a reform of the tax system. They decided to change the system and write a constitution for the kingdom based on the American model. Afraid of a coup d’état from the députés, King Louis XVI secretly called upon Swiss and German troops that he stationed all around Paris, causing panic among the people of Paris.

On July 9, the Etats Généraux decided to become a permanent parliament. Neither the king nor his court approved of this so-called coup. Under the pressure of the court, the king fired his treasury secretary, Jacques Necker, who had been charged with increasing the deficit but who was nonetheless extremely popular in Paris.

Angry and worried, the people of Paris then stole arms from the Invalides, then a military hospital. They then decided to storm an old fortress from the 14th century in Paris called the Bastille. The people of Paris took over the jail and freed the prisoners inside. Although the fight was short (only four hours in length), there were 100 casualties, including the beheading of the commander of the Bastille, Governor de Launay, as well as the Mayor of Paris, Jacques de Flesselles. The date was July 14 and the French Revolution had started.

La Fête de la Fédération held on July 14, 1790, in the Champ de Mars, commemorated the first anniversary of this insurrection; however, little do people know that a year later the king banned this commemoration. The Bastille was dismantled. Some of its foundational stones would later be used to build the Concorde Bridge. The commemoration came back in 1880; the year July 14 became an official holiday, replacing August 25 (the day to celebrate King St. Louis) as the official French holiday.

The emphasis of Bastille Day is to celebrate France’s recovery after the Prussian defeat of 1870. Now every year, festivities begin on the evening of July 13 by a walk around the Paris with paper lamps. The following day, church bells precede the military parades in the morning and a street dance, and fireworks end the day in celebratory fashion.

The Importance of Bastille Day to the French

For me, July 14 always holds a special place in my heart. Every summer, my family and I would spend the summer in a tiny village in Normandy, and we would follow the same traditions (similar to most French people that day). 

Early in the morning, we would sit quietly in my grandparents’ living room and watch the military parade on the Champs-Elysées on TV. We spent the afternoon relaxing at the beach celebrating together as a family and then headed home to have dinner. Although unlike many American holiday traditions, there is not a special food or official drink associated with Bastille Day.

When night fell, we would gather on the town green, and my grandparents would buy us paper lamps to serve as a festive memento and to remind people that candles and torches were the only source of light back in the 18th century. We would all sing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, as we walked around town and then sat down on the beach to watch the firework celebration. The celebratory events usually ended way past my bedtime, but the night was always so magical that my parents and grandparents did not mind. 

As I grew older, July 14 was still very special, largely because of the bal populaire (street dance). My cousins and I would go to the town green at dusk and join our friends there. We spent countless hours in the bathroom getting ready, as we had to look our best. We used to think that maybe—just maybe the man, or the woman of our dreams would be waiting for us! This never happened, but each year, we kept coming back because it was so much fun to celebrate.

Even though I moved to the United States 20 years ago, I still look forward to commemorating Bastille Day. One year, I was invited to the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., to celebrate and watch the fireworks. Other years, I have dressed as a French revolutionary, singing La Marseille to the French School at Middlebury College, in order to help the students understand the importance of Bastille Day. There are many francophonies here in the United States that honor this amazing holiday annually and the Middlebury, Vermont, area is a fantastic place to join in the festivities. So, attend a Bastille Day celebration and take part in the historic traditions linked to such a special day!

Barbara Sicot
A native French speaker, Barbara Sicot has been a member of the French faculty at Middlebury College's Language Schools for 16 years and now brings her expertise in world language curriculum development to Middlebury Interactive. She is an avid cook (madeleines and flamiche are her specialties!), passionate about teaching and, once-upon-a-time, was admitted to the Paris Ballet opera.
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