It’s that time of year again, when some of the biggest national celebrations take place to honor certain countries of the world and the people who inhabit them. You might know that in the United States, the big annual summer blowout is Independence Day. But in France, the major yearly celebration comes 10 days later: Bastille Day.
France’s special day is not really about independence from foreign rule in the same way the United States’ is. Do you know what the holiday exists for? Even if you’ve heard of it before, you might have wondered to yourself, “Just what is Bastille Day, and why is it such a big deal?” Here’s a brief overview about the origins and the modern celebrations of the holiday.
What Events Inspired Bastille Day?
Bastille Day, which takes place every year on July 14, commemorates the date of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, during the earliest stages of the French Revolution. But what does that all mean?
At the end of the 18th century, things were not exactly democratic for the people of France, who were under the reign of the Bourbon monarchy and its figurehead Louis XVI (married to the famous Marie Antoinette). The state was in the throes of political and economic crisis, and an anti-monarchist fervor had been bubbling against the woefully out-of-touch ruler.
On July 14, 1789, in a show of people-powered republican strength, nearly one thousand Parisians stormed the central Bastille fortress and prison, which was known to be a holding place for political dissidents who had provoked the ire of the monarchs. The stormers, seeking ammunition, fought Royalist forces and managed to free the seven prisoners inside after a few hours of fighting.
This event was a major catalyst that ignited the French Revolution, which would transform the political landscape of France away from tyrannical monarchical rule and into the hands of the people over the last years of the 18th century. France’s volatile political history shows that it didn’t stay this way for long, however, with the ensuing Reign of Terror and the birth of the Napoleonic Empire.
The storming of the Bastille revealed the weaknesses of the French monarchy and paved the way for a shift to a more people-focused center of political power, laying the foundation for what would become today’s democratic France and serving as a shining example of the spirit captured by its national motto “liberté, egalité, fraternité.”
What Is Bastille Day Today?
Today, Bastille Day is a national holiday recognized all around the country. In Paris, it’s typically celebrated with fireworks at the Eiffel Tower and a massive military parade along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with high-profile international leaders and guests. It’s the largest annual military parade in Europe and the oldest ongoing one in the world, with the first one occurring on Bastille Day 1880. Around the country you can find citizens waving tricolor flags, partying with friends and family, and singing “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.
“Bastille Day” is the typical English speaker’s way of referring to the holiday, but in French it’s formally known as La fête nationale (“The National Celebration”) or commonly as le quatorze juillet (“the fourteenth [of] July”).
Next time you find yourself asking, “What is Bastille Day?” think back to the revolutionaries who ushered in a new political era for France and their legacy today!