Bastille Day 2015: what France celebrates on 14 July

Jul 14, 2015

This year's Bastille Day celebrations may be more sombre than usual, after a difficult year for France


France's national holiday, Bastille Day, is an annual celebration held on 14 July. Referred to in French as "la fête nationale", the country spends the day commemorating the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution. This year's national holiday comes amid a challenging period for France, following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist shootings in Paris.

What was the Bastille?

During the 1700s, the Bastille was one of the most feared prisons in Paris. It had an especially vile reputation because it was where the king kept his political enemies. Many prisoners were held in the Bastille without charge, The Guardian says, and the monarch – who enjoyed absolute power – was able to "incarcerate a man for life". By the 1780s, the prison had become "the embodiment of brutal tyranny" for the French. 

What does a prison have to do with France's national day?

On 14 July 1789, the Bastille was attacked by a mob of angry protesters who tore down the walls and freed the prisoners. Their victory was seen as a symbolic triumph of the people over the king, and is often regarded as the first act of the French Revolution.

For how long has Bastille Day been commemorated?

The first Bastille Day celebrations occurred in 1790, but the holiday was largely forgotten for most of the next century as France was engulfed by political turmoil, including Robespierre's violent revolutionary government, the empire of Napoleon, and the temporary restoration of the monarchy. After the formation of the Third Republic, Bastille Day became an official national holiday in 1880.

How is it celebrated?

Paris is the central hub for Bastille Day activities. The festivities kick off with a re-enactment of the invasion of the Bastille, known as the "retraite aux flambeaux", on 13 July, but the main event is the grand military parade staged on 14 July. Thousands of troops from all branches of the armed services march down the Champs-Elysée and salute the French president. The parade is accompanied by musical performances, including a rendition of the national anthem. After the parade, smaller festivals and balls begin around the city. The official celebrations end with a fireworks display behind the Eiffel Tower, but revellers party into the night.

How do smaller communities participate?

People in towns and cities outside of Paris often spend the Bastille Day with their family and friends, and the streets are awash with red, white and blue decorations. 

What's different this year?

The mood is likely to be more sombre for Bastille Day 2015, says Radio France Internationale. "The year began with the attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket and has since seen a man with Islamist links beheading his boss and attacking a chemical plant and reports of youngsters leaving France to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq," it says. France's military presence in Africa has also increased, with troops in the Central African Republic, Mali and the Sahel area.

Today, France's elite counter-terrorism forces will march down the Champs-Elysées for the first time, in recognition of the role they played in countering the Charlie Hebdo attackers. Some of the 10,000 troops stationed across the country to protect vulnerable sites will also take part. President François Hollande has appealed for national unity ahead of the 14 July celebrations. At a reception at the Ministry of Defence held yesterday, he said: "Fundamentalist terrorism has set up shop just a few hours' flight from our homeland. Faced with these attacks and threats, our country must say no to division because that's what the terrorists want and fear could be the worst poison in our national community."

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