Bastille Day: 'le jour de gloire est arrivé'

Jul 10, 2014

From prison riots to fireworks, the history of Bastille Day – France's fête nationale

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, the celebration falls on a Monday, offering France a long weekend. 

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. 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.