Bastille Day: France’s Independence Day vs. American Fourth Of July Explained

France's Independence Day (Bastille Day) Vs American fourth of July Explained

Bastille Day in France, you’ve heard of it but do you really know why the French celebrate it? And what are the similarities and differences between Americas fourth of July and France’s Bastille day? Here’s what I discovered!

When is Bastille Day (French Independence day)?

France is America’s first and oldest ally and like most countries, these two old friends have their own respective “national day”.

The United States Of America’s national day is the called “The Fourth of July”—also known as “Independence Day” and France’s national day is “Bastille Day” (the French don’t call their national day Bastille day, this is what English speakers call it…more on that in a moment).

Besides both being in the month of July, the national day of these two great nations have quite a few more uncanny similarities and quite 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”. An American might get the reference of “Declaration day” eventually however you’d probably get some puzzled looks.

Similar to how Americans call their independence day “the 4th of July”, the French refer to Bastille day as “quatorze juillet” which simply 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” as a celebration of being French.

simply put, it’s a day to be patriotic…but why? 

The storming of the Bastille prison was a turning point in the French revolution and the beginning of the end of the French monarchy

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 (the14th 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.

So why was the 14th of July chosen as France’s national day?

Map of the French empire old and new

Bastille day commemorates 2 events in French history

1- The storming of the Bastille: 14th of July, 1798  (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 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 reason 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. and 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 it’s 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 and even helped fund the American revolution of (1775- 1783) which ultimately bankrupted the country.

France was on the brink of an economic depression, the monarchy needed more money to maintain their lavish lifestyles and to keep fighting in future wars so naturally, this meant raising more taxes again.

There was only one problem…

Only the poor paid taxes:

The three classes of old French society

At the time, the structure of the French society had 3 classes called Estates.

3 classes of old French society before the revolution

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 taxes, France’s First and Second Estates were exempt from paying taxes and shamelessly enjoyed lavish and extravagant lifestyles in huge houses and castles with plenty of food all on the backs of the third estate citizens of France.

The church extracted taxes on the peasants as well, called tithes.

3 estates depicted in this famous painting

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, the 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 completely. It was later replaced by “La Place de la Bastille” (Bastille square).

place-de-la-BastilleLouis 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 date, 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 which was enacted 13 years later in August 1789, one year after the storming of the Bastille.

Both France and the early American colonies felt as if the governments were not thinking of the peoples as they raised taxes, held unequal trials and used the military for their own personal use. This enraged the people and caused both countries to write their own, unique declaration of independence.

Similarities: Both declarations were written by rebels and required freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and only allowed the military be used during war and not for personal use.

Differences: The one major difference is that France wanted to redefine its current government while the United States wanted to create a separate government from Great Britain.

New French Flag:

The French flag is an important symbol which symbolizes France’s freedom from the French Monarchy’s absolute power.

Prior to the revolution, the royal flag / royal banner was white which represented the monarch.

After the storming of Bastille, France’s official flag combined the white (the royal colours) with the red and blue colour cockades the Paris militia wore in their hats during the revolution to distinguish which side they were on.

This trio of colours, blue, white and red, not red white and blue led to the current flag of France known to English speakers as the French Tricolour or simply Tricolour.

French tricolour cockade is how the French flag got its three colours-tricolour

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 it was sung by volunteers from Marseille marching in Paris because it expressed the feelings of the people of France.

Both the US anthem and the French anthem were written by young revolutionaries in the middle of a savage war however the messages are very different.

Unlike the Star spangled banner, La Marseillaise is actually quite violent, probably THE most violent anthem in existance—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,
March! March!
Let impure blood water our furrows!”

France’s motto: liberty, equality, fraternity.

France’s motto is comprised of three —”Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, words for one idea and first appeared during the French Revolution in a speech from Maximilien Robespierre on the 5th of December 1790 when dealing with the organisation of the National Guard.

France-moto-liberty-equaliy-fraternity

What does France’s motto “liberty, equality, fraternity” signify?:

Liberty from an oppressive, frivolous monarch, Equality for the common person and Fraternity because the original goal was 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. Prior to this motto, E Pluribus Unum “from many, one” was adopted in 1782 for the seal of the United States and has been used on coins and paper money ever since.

USA has two mottos

Lady Liberty

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 actually a gift to the US by the people of France commemorating the alliance of France and the United States during the American Revolution.

The Lady Liberty statue was designed by French sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and built by the same person who built the Eiffel tower and the tower’s namesake, Gustave Eiffel. There’s a quarter-scale replica of the statue of liberty on the Seine river in Paris. (picture below)

Replica of the Statue of Liberty in Paris on the Seine

There are actually 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.

Replica of the Statue of Liberty in Lunel FranceMarianne, France’s lady liberty is everywhere in France

French-government-logo

Marianne is present everywhere in the country and can be seen on the official government logo (picture above), on French euro coins, French postage stamps, in paintings etc.

Liberty-Leading-The-People Eugène Delacroix

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 than the French sometimes take the following Friday off which is called “Faire le pont” which literally means  “Make a bridge” but idiomatically speaking means to take a 4 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 in France, it’s just not the case. You’ll definitely 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 French flag.

Nor would a French person hang a French flag outside their house for Bastille day or any other day of the year.

And French people don’t wear hats or buy clothing or plates decorated like the French flag.

It just isn’t done. The French flag is seen as something sacred.

Americans like flags

Family time

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”

Annual French military parade in Paris on 14th of July (Bastille Day-paris)

Since 1880, the 14th of July celebrations always starts with what is now the worlds 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, policemen, firemen and also the horses, helicopters, fighter jets, tanks and more.

To accommodate the huge 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 wants one for the USA too.

Some French towns and cities also throw their own parade but nothing even close to the one in Paris.

Jet figthers at Annual French military parade in Paris on 14th of July (Bastille Day-paris)

Museums

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.

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 sometimes 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 which is 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

  • Australia
  • Philadelphia
  • Tahiti
  • 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 Eiffel tower.
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Hanoi Vietnam
  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Montreal Québec
  • San Francisco, California
  • and more……….

About the Author

Annie André Is a half Thai, half French Canadian/American freelance writer, digital marketer and author of THE LIVE IN FRANCE GUIDE: an expat travel and lifestyle blog featuring destination guides, inspiration, travel tips, personal advice and anecdotes on working, living and playing in France. ( Equal parts weird, wacky and wonderful).

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