What is 14 July France independence day?
National Bastille Day
On July 14th, France celebrates Bastille Day. It’s an exciting French holiday time that commemorates the incredible history of our country.
In French, we call it the “Fête nationale française”, or the “French National Celebration”. It’s a day, not unlike the 4th of July in the US, when we take time to appreciate our country.
The history behind the holiday is also exciting — filled with a prison break, a revolution, and the founding of the first republic in Europe.
As the name suggests, that history is inextricably linked to a single building: the Bastille. The name alone conjures up horrific visions in the minds of French people, nightmares of political imprisonment and despotism.
Its destruction was the event that allowed France to imagine a different kind of government, a different way of life.
Let’s dig into this history and learn the thrilling story of Bastille Day.
The Storming of the Bastille
July 14 is chosen for this celebration because it represents the moment many people say began the French Revolution — the Storming of the Bastille.
But this event wasn’t just about the destruction of a single building. It was a symbolic victory over the Ancien Régime, and it began a process of modernization that spread throughout Europe and beyond.
What Is the Bastille?
For centuries, the Bastille loomed as a symbol of royal power in Paris since its construction in the middle of the 14th century.
At the time, the country was embroiled in the 100 Years War against the powerful forces of the English. And while the west was protected by the Louvre (before it became an art museum), the east remained open to attack.
The mayor (then called provost) of Paris built new walls, expanding the reach of the city’s defenses. The Bastille (officially called the Bastille Saint-Antoine) was set at the east entrance of Paris. But before the building could take on its iconic look, the mayor was assassinated in 1358 due to intrigue around a power struggle for the throne.
As King Charles V took the crown, the Bastille still needed to be completed. He added six towers to the fortress, giving it that famous Medieval look it is known for in numerous paintings.
To appreciate how imposing it was, we have to remember that these gates were at the edges of Paris. That meant that beyond it lie only countryside and tiny little villages. You could see this impressive, muscular structure from far away. And inside Paris, buildings were not many stories yet, allowing people in the streets to see it from almost anywhere in the city.
Completed in the 1380s, it benefited from many fortress improvements that would go on to influence future projects. Its wide and level paths along the wall allowed troops to move easily and quickly around and place cannons almost anywhere. And the circular towers provided a great deal more structural support than the squared edges of most other fortresses.
Despite these advantages, less than a century later in 1420 the forces of Henry V of England captured Paris. During England’s 16 year stay in the city, the Bastille was used as a prison. And when Charles VII of France retook the city, English used the Bastille as the site of their final stand.
It was under Louis XI, who came to power in 1461, that the Bastille became a prison for the French monarchy.
But it was the Sun King Louis XIV who turned it into a major site of captivity. He imprisoned over 2,000 people there throughout his absolutist reign.
All of these prisoners, including the many after Louis XVI, were put there without trial. The Bastille was set aside for those locked away by order of the King alone. That gave it a strong connection to the oppression of the monarchy.
The Bastille in the French Imagination
For years, entrance into the Bastille was limited, and this gave special weight to accounts by writers like Voltaire (who did a stint in the prison in 1717).
They described the plight of those locked away inside in gruesome detail. The occasional literary descriptions of the torture and starvation going on in the bowels of the building paled in comparison to the rumors that flooded the streets of Paris.
In the Parisian imagination, anything horrible you could imagine happened in the Bastille. It took on all the fear people had of being on the wrong side of the King and magnified them into a living underworld trapped inside stone walls so thick that no one on the outside could hear your screams.
It played host to the Man in the Iron Mask, a famous prisoner who spent three decades in the walls of the Bastille, his true identity covered by the inhumane mask that gave him his name.
What made it worse was that the large fortress could be seen all over Paris. This image of brutality was never that far off, a terrible reminder of where you could end up if you did not obey the crown.
And by the 18th century, it also stood on the walls that now divided two drastically different neighborhoods: Le Marais (where the wealthy lived) and Faubourg St. Antoine (where the poor lived).
This gave it added symbolic power as an icon of class division.
The reality inside the prison was not so harsh.
Most of the captives were inconvenient aristocrats, still afforded some of the luxuries they were accustomed to. They were even paid money after leaving, amounting to more than a laborer made in an entire year.
The French Revolution
By the late 18th century, King Louis XVI’s government was in deep financial trouble. It relied on unfair taxation methods that disproportionately hurt the poor, and now that it was in debt, the populace was growing angry.
At the same time, Enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity were brewing in the streets.
French troops were more and more defecting to the cause, and that meant many of the forces in Paris were now hired mercenaries from Switzerland and Germany. These were stationed at the Bastille, which housed an enormous amount of weapons and gunpowder.
On the morning of July 14, 1789, a group of revolutionaries seized thousands of muskets but had no gunpowder. So they marched to the Bastille. The few guards there held them off, allowing a few representatives inside to negotiate. But by the afternoon the crowd pushed their way into the courtyard.
Guards began shooting on the crowd, leading to a riot. French soldiers defected to the side of the revolution, and this allowed the fighting to continue until 5 PM, when a ceasefire was declared.
The crowds entered the fortress en masse and took control, making the Storming of the Bastille the first victory for the revolution.
Only a few months after the storming, the Bastille was completely dismantled. Today, nothing of it remains.
A fountain was placed there in the years after, but Napoleon replaced it with a famous large elephant statue (you might recognize it from Les Misérables). Later, it would be replaced by the July Column.
National Bastille Day
One year to the day after the Storming of the Bastille, a celebration honoring the event took place. Called the Fête de la Fédération and sponsored by the new French Assembly, the event was to honor the unity of the French people.
It was held in driving rain, with the National Guard marching to a crowd of over a quarter million Parisians.
During the Third Republic, the current form of National Bastille Day began to take shape. The government passed a law in 1880 to celebrate July 14 as a national festival.
Henri Martin, who wrote the law, had to argue that the day was not only chosen for the Storming of the Bastille but also the celebration on that day a year later (that well remembered military march in the rain). That was because many politicians felt the violent class war elements of the Storming were an unsavory basis for a national holiday.
The Military Parade
One of the most famous images from any Bastille Day celebration is the grand military parade. This is held in the morning, with the march down the Champs-Élysées beginning at the Arc de Triomphe and ending at the Place de la Concorde. Here, the President, government official, and foreign ambassadors meet the parade.
During the years of Nazi occupation (1940 to 1944), this parade was still held — only in London. With the exception of those five years, Paris has hosted the military parade on every July 14 since 1880.
It is the oldest and largest regularly held military parade in Europe, and most French people either attend or watch it on television.
The school of Polytechnique X
Every year, the freshmen of the school Polytechnique lead the parade. They are the best officers, trained in a very selective public school called "the X" or in French : l'X.
The Importance of Bastille Day
France is a proud country, and Bastille Day gives us a time to reflect on our culture — where it’s been, where it’s going. We do this together, united under the tricolor flag.
That it celebrates the Storming of the Bastille helps to interweave so many elements of French history. And it reminds us that the France we enjoy today took sacrifice along a sometimes difficult road.
On July 14, we remember these gifts and their costs.
If you happen to come to Paris during the next 14th of July, feel free to contact me!
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