Bastille Day: French Independence Day vs Americas 4th of July Explained

Bastille Day in France, France’s national day or independence day, you’ve heard of it, but do you know what it is and why the French celebrate it? Here are similarities and differences between it and America’s fourth of July.

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
France's Bastille day vs Americas fourth of july explained
France's Bastille day vs Americas fourth of july explained

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.

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02/18/2024 04:16 pm GMT

Bastille Day: Everything you need to know about French Independence day! 

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. 

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 (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?

Map of the French empire old and new

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 longer than Queen Elizabeth who ruled for 70 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 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 three classes called estates.

3 classes of old French society before the revolution

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, 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).

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 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 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 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.

New French Flag:

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

Before 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 France’s current flag 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 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,
March! March!
Let impure blood water our furrows!”

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

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.


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.

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 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 Eiffel Tower, built the inner skeleton.  There are replicas and copies of the statue of liberty all over the world, and over 35 replicas of the statue exist in France alone. Some are scaled-down originals made from Bartholdi’s moulds, and others are copies that pay homage to its creator. 


Replica of the Statue of Liberty in Paris on the Seine

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.

Replica of the Statue of Liberty in Lunel France

Marianne, France’s lady liberty, is everywhere in France.



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.

Lady Liberty leading the people by 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, 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. 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 French flag. The exception is certain sporting events such as soccer matches (soccer is called “le football” in French. ) 

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 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 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.

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

  • 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……….

Sharing is caring: pin this to Pinterest.

pintrest pin about Bastille Day

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.


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