Bastille Day in France, you’ve heard of it, but do you know why the French celebrate it? And what are the similarities and differences between America’s fourth of July and France’s Bastille Day? Here’s what you need to know.
French National day explained.
When is Bastille Day: French Independence day?
France is America’s first and oldest ally. And like many countries around the world, these two old friends each have their individual “national day.”
The United States Of America’s national day is called “The Fourth of July,”—also known as “Independence Day,” and France’s national day is called “Bastille Day.”
Besides both being in July, the national days of these two great nations have quite a few more uncanny similarities and a few differences.
Here’s what you need to know.
It’s not called Bastille Day in France.
The first thing you need to know about Bastille Day is it’s not called Bastille day in France. Only English speakers call it Bastille Day. It would be like calling the 4th of July “Declaration Day.” It just sounds strange.
Similar to how Americans call their independence day “the 4th of July”, the French refer to Bastille day as “quatorze juillet,” which means “14th of July. “
- July in French = Juillet
- 14 in French = quatorze
It’s worth noting that Bastille day is also referred to as fête nationale “NATIONAL CELEBRATION ” or fête nationale Française ”NATIONAL FRENCH CELEBRATION,” but these are slightly more formal than just saying “14th of July”.
How to pronounce ‘le quatorze juillet’ (the fourteenth of July) in French
Phonetically, it’s pronounced like this —LUH – CAT- ORZ- JWHEE- YAY.
How to pronounce Bastille:
If you want to pronounce Bastille like a French person, don’t pronounce the “LL’s”—just like you wouldn’t pronounce the LL’s in the word Tortilla.
Phonetically speaking, you should pronounce it like this —B-A-S-T-I-Y
What Is Bastille day, and what are French people celebrating (on the 14th of July)?
Just like Americans see the 4th of July as a day to celebrate being American, the French see their Bastille day or “quatorze juillet” to celebrate being French. It’s Patriotic.
In the United States, the Fourth of July celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776—which kicked off the country’s independence from the British Empire and subsequently gave birth to the United States of America.
Bastille day (the 14th of July), on the other hand, does not celebrate any declaration of independence or separation from the British Empire—the French had their own Empire at the time, which had its own bragging rights. Remnants of which are still visible in some places like Louisiana and, of course, Quebec, where my own family is from.
Why was the 14th of July chosen as France’s national day?
Bastille day commemorates two events in French history
1- The storming of the Bastille: 14th of July, 1789 (La prise de la Bastille”)
Bastille Day in France celebrates the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille —where over 7000 French people (revolutionists) united and stormed the Bastille on July 14th, 1789, in an attempt to overthrow the dictatorial policies of the French Monarchy. This day in history marks the official start of the French revolution.
2-The celebration of the federation: 14th of July, 1790 (La Fête de la Fédération)
Bastille day celebrations also commemorate “La fête de la Federation,” which is simply the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille one year later on the 14th of July, 1790—and the short-lived constitutional monarchy.
France didn’t adopt the 14th of July as their national day until 1880, right at the beginning of the third republic, almost one hundred years after the French revolution of 1789.
What is the Bastille?—French revolution for dummies
You’re probably wondering what is this Bastille, and why is the storming of it regarded as the beginning of the French revolution?
You need to know a little French history to understand the answer, so allow me to give you the abbreviated French revolution for dummies version of what went down in French history.
The Bastille (bad)
The Bastille was a 400-year-old medieval fortress and Prison in Paris, formally known as the Bastille Saint-Antoine, which had long been a symbol of royal power and represented the tyranny of the monarchy.
Some have likened the Bastille as a kind of Guantanamo Bay of its time.
People were sometimes sent to the Bastille prison arbitrarily, sometimes for political reasons, and sometimes people didn’t even know why they were sent there.
No one really knew what went on inside the Bastille, so everyone just assumed the worst—torture, neglect, starving prisoners, bad conditions, etc. It soon became a major symbol of oppression for the French people.
What led to the storming of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789?
In the years leading up to the French revolution and the storming of the Bastille in 1789, France had been ruled by the Catholic church and French Monarchs.
France actually had 79 different rulers over the course of 1260 years, one of the most famous being King Louis the XIV, also known as the Sun King, who enjoyed 72 long years as France’s ruler and king (1643–1715)—the longest-reigning King of any European monarch in history to this day. Even Queen Elizabeth hasn’t ruled that long. As of 2018, she will have been queen for 65 years.
By 1789, France was in debt thanks to the many expensive wars it fought to protect its territories— First against Prussia, then the British Empire and then the Seven Years’ war where France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden, and Russia fought on the same side against Prussia, Hanover, and Great Britain.
Do you remember how I mentioned earlier that the French were America’s first friend and oldest ally helping the Americans during the American revolution?
Well under the rule of King Louis the XVI and his Austrian wife and Queen Marie Antoinette, France fought alongside American rebels against Britain in the American Revolution. It even helped fund the American revolution of (1775- 1783) which ultimately bankrupted the country.
France was on the brink of economic depression; the monarchy needed more money to maintain their lavish lifestyles and to keep fighting in future wars. This meant raising more
There was only one problem…
Only the poor paid
The three classes of old French society
At the time, the structure of the French society had three classes called estates.
3 classes of old French society
First Estate: The clergy, which was anyone who worked in the church. Roughly 1% of the population.
Second Estate: The Nobility, people of royal blood, barons, knights, counts, marquis, viscounts, dukes etc. Roughly 2% of the population.
Third Estate: Everyone else, peasants and the upper working class known as “Les bourgeoisie” such as Merchants, lawyers, doctors, journalist, professors etc
While the Third Estate—mostly poor peasants and upper working class paid huge
The church extracted
This famous painting symbolizes how the 1st estate and the 2nd estate used, abused and depended on the labour and money of the 3rd estate.
This inequality and poor treatment angered the poor French.
When news came that the already destitute and starving poor peasants were to be taxed again, it sparked unrest among the people…
The ordinary French person wanted freedom and began demanding for democracy, equality & liberty & human dignity for the average person, not just for the nobles and church.
Inspired by the American Revolution and the birth of the United States, coupled with the fact that Ideals of enlightenment were beginning to take hold in France, the people revolted.
In the summer of 1789, anarchy swept through the city of Paris. Overtaxed and malnourished crowds swarmed through the streets of Paris, and looting broke out all over the city—the symbolic heart of the monarchy.
King Louis XVI tried to reform France in line with Enlightenment ideals but the nobility opposed.
King Louis even proposed to tax the nobles, but they refused to cooperate.
On 14 July 1789, an angry mob in Paris decided to attack the Bastille, free the prisoners and get weapons.
The storming of the Bastille became a symbol of the revolution.
Eventually, the new revolutionary government demolished the Bastille fortress. It was later replaced by “La Place de la Bastille” (Bastille square).
Louis XVI (1774–92) and Marie Antoinette executed
King Louis XVI was the last King of France before the fall of the French monarchy during the French Revolution, after which he was tried and found guilty of high treason and guillotined in 1793—the only French ruler to ever to be executed. His death ended over 1200 years of continuous monarchical rule.
Napoleon became the leader of France afterwards for a time.
Ideas and symbols that came out of the revolution
The declaration of rights of man and citizen
The US has “the declaration of independence,” and France has “the declaration of rights of man and citizen.”
Different dates, different enemies; otherwise, the similarities are uncanny.
The American Declaration of Independence came first, signed on 4 July 1776, and was the inspiration for the French Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizens, enacted 13 years later in August 1789, one year after the storming of the Bastille.
Both France and the early American colonies felt that the governments were not thinking of the peoples as they raised
Similarities: Both declarations were written by rebels and required freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and only allowed the military to be used during the war and not for personal use.
Differences: The one significant difference is that France wanted to redefine its current government while the United States wanted to create a separate government from Great Britain.
Before the revolution, the royal
After the storming of Bastille, France’s official
This trio of colours, blue, white and red, not red, white and blue, led to France’s current
French national anthem: La Marseillaise
The American national anthem, “The star-spangled banner” was written in 1814 by Frances Scott Key.
In 1795, the song “La Marseillaise,” written and composed by Army engineer Claude Joseph Rouget in 1792, was adopted as France’s national anthem. Rouget originally titled the anthem “War Song for the Rhine army, but it became known as La Marseillaise when volunteers from Marseille sang it while marching in Paris because it expressed the feelings of the people of France.
Young revolutionaries wrote both the US anthem and the French anthem in the middle of a savage war; however, the messages are very different.
Unlike the Star-spangled banner, La Marseillaise is quite violent, probably THE most violent anthem in existence—brutal images of how the enemy is coming to cut the throats of your wives and children, egging on its citizens to take arms and water the fields with the blood of the impure enemies.
Here is a translation of part of the anthem, and below is a video of the entire anthem with translations.
“Arise children of the fatherland, the day of glory has arrived…..
Listen…to the howling of those fearsome soldiers, who are coming to cut the throats of your wives and children.
To arms citizens, form your battalions,
Let impure blood water our furrows!”
France’s motto: liberty, equality, fraternity.
France’s motto of three words for one idea —”Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” first appeared during the French Revolution in a speech from Maximilien Robespierre on the 5th of December 1790 when dealing with the organization of the National Guard.
What does France’s motto “liberty, equality, fraternity” signify?:
Liberty from an oppressive, frivolous monarch. Equality for the common, ordinary person and Fraternity for a peaceful change.
The first established motto of the United States, established in 1956, is “In God, we trust” but first appeared on US coins in 1864. Before this motto, E Pluribus Unum “from many, one” was adopted in 1782 for the United States’ seal and used on coins and paper money ever since.
The USA has Lady Liberty, and France has Marianne, a very important Republican symbol and the embodiment of the French Republic and its values— Liberty, Egality, Fraternity.
You may already know this, but it’s worth mentioning that the statue of liberty was a gift to the US by the people of France commemorating France and the United States’ alliance during the American Revolution.
The Lady Liberty statue was designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and Gustave Eiffel, who designed the
France offered the statue to the United States as a gift to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and to celebrate the alliance of the two countries formed during the French Revolution. You can read more about her fascinating history here.
There are many more replicas of the statue of liberty around the world and in France. Here is the one I saw in Lunel France near our home in Montpellier.
Marianne, France’s lady liberty, is everywhere in France.
Did you know that there are over 35 reproductions and copies of the statue of liberty in France. Some are scaled-down replicas created and signed by Bartholdi himself. Others use an original Bartholdi mould, and some are copies with slight variations. My favourite is #35 on this list, made by Salvatore Dali. Happy hunting.
Marianne is present everywhere in the country and can be seen on the official government logo (pictured above), on French euro coins, French postage stamps, in paintings etc.
La liberté guidant le Peuple by Eugène Delacroix
Lady Liberty Leading the People is a painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating yet another revolution, the July Revolution of 1830, which toppled King Charles X of France.
What happens on Bastille day in France vs American 4th of July
In many ways, France’s national day is celebrated much like it is in the US, with a few differences.
Four day weekend
For starters, the 14th of July is a bank holiday just like the 4th is in the US?
If the 14th of July falls on a Thursday, then the French sometimes take the following Friday off, called “Faire le Pont,” which means “Make a bridge,” but idiomatically speaking means to take a four-day weekend. This is true of most bank holidays in France.
Don’t say happy 14th of July or happy Bastille day.
Where Americans say happy 4th, the French would never say happy Bastille day or happy 14th of July. It just sounds weird to French ears.
Don’t wave French flags.
Americans tend to have flags everywhere on the fourth of July, but it’s just not the case in France. You’ll see French flags as part of the annual 14th of July military parade, but in general, your average French person would never stand around waving a
Nor would a French person hang a
And French people don’t wear hats or buy clothing or plates decorated like the
It just isn’t done. The
Like the American Fourth of July, Bastille Day on the 14th of July is a national holiday in France, and many French people use the day to gather with family and friends to have a meal, a barbecue (minus the corn, because French people don’t eat corn), a picnic etc.
Military parade along the Champs-Elysées “Défilé.”
Since 1880, the 14th of July celebrations always start with what is now the world’s biggest, oldest and maybe even the most expensive military parade in the world, which starts at the top of the Champs-Elysées and ends on the Place de la Concorde in front of the president’s tribune.
Crowds gather hours in advance to get a good spot to view the over 4000 military personnel, police officers, firefighters and also the horses, helicopters, fighter jets, tanks and more.
To accommodate the massive crowds, we’re talking millions; there is stadium-style seating all along the Champs-Elysées and barrier controls in other areas.
Trump was so impressed by the Bastille day French military parade, which he attended back in 2017; he wanted one for the USA.
Some French towns and cities also throw their own parade but nothing even close to the one in Paris.
Throughout Paris, Museums are free to the public on the 14th of July, so visitors often visit the museums after the parade and before the fireworks.
Paris, of course, has one of the biggest Bastille Day celebrations in France. It is, after all, the biggest and most celebrated French holiday.
And just about every town has fireworks on Bastille day. For the towns that don’t have fireworks, you don’t have to go very far to watch them in a neighbouring town or city.
14th of July Fireman’s ball (Bals des Pompiers)
Firehouses across France sometimes open up their firehouse for drinks, entertainment and dancing. You’ll occasionally be asked to donate some money to attend, which goes directly to the firefighters to help make their lives better…
Not In France? You Can Still Celebrate Bastille day!
You don’t have to be in France to celebrate Bastille Day.
Francophiles and French expats living outside of France can still celebrate the 14th of July with plenty of fanfare.
Here are a few of the more well known or established Bastille day celebrations around the world.
Bastille day in Los Angeles
In LA, there is a Bastille Day festival celebrated in the gorgeous gardens of the Page Museum on Wilshire Boulevard, which serves French food and live entertainment including.
Bastille Day in India
on India’s south-eastern coast, there is a city called Pondicherry, which celebrates Bastille Day, complete with French parades.
Other places that celebrate Bastille day
- Kaplan Louisiana has one of the oldest Bastille day celebrations in North America.
- Milwaukee Wisconsin: 5k run, which finishes in front of a reproduction of the
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Hanoi Vietnam
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- Montreal Québec
- San Francisco, California
- and more……….
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