Each year on July 14 Bastille Day is celebrated to commemorate the Storming of the Bastille in Paris on this date in 1798, an important date in the French Revolution. Also known as French National Day, it features feasting, fireworks, public dancing, and an address by the French President. However, the center of this celebration is the largest and oldest European military parade along the Avenue of the Champs-Élysées, a wide boulevard that runs through Paris and is called la plus belle avenue du monde. Lined by high-end shops and eateries, as well as the Arc of Triumph in the middle, it is undoubtedly the most beautiful avenue in the world that I’ve walked along. Bastille Day is celebrated across the globe wherever French ex-patriots, people of French ancestry, and Francophiles live.
The history of the event goes back to 1789 at the time in France’s monarchy under King Louis XVI when he invited the Estates-General, representing the common people, to voice their grievances about high taxes and rising food prices. The people were unhappy about the economic crisis brought on by:
- Louis’ extravagant spending at Versailles
- The building of his navy
- His financial support of the American Revolution, thanks to the negotiations of Benjamin Franklin, first American Minister (Ambassador) to France
But fear of reprisal caused the people to storm the fortress/prison known as the Bastille to seize gunpowder and ammunition and to free political prisoners. This was considered the start of the French Revolution. Shortly after that, France’s newly formed National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism and passed in August the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, becoming a fundamental document of the French Revolution. The following year, on July 14, 1790, the Fête de la Fédération was held to celebrate.
The celebration as we now know it, commemorated in a painting by Claude Monet called Rue Montorgueil, was held on June 30, 1878. It became an annual national holiday. Throughout the 1880s it was celebrated famously as a victory over the old ancien régime, that period when the monarchy ruled France. The military parades we now see began then along the main boulevard, including marches by the Allies following the Allies of the Versailles Peace Conference following WWI.
Of course, the Liberation of Paris was celebrated here along the Champs-Élysées on August 25, 1944. The parades pass along the boulevard from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde where the Champs-Élysées ends at Jardin des Tuileries (Tuileries Garden) and the Impressionist art gallery Musée de l’Orangerie, adjacent to the Louvre. Ironically, Place de la Concorde used to be called Place de la Revolution, where many notable public executions were carried out by guillotine during the French Revolution, including those of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in 1793.
This document was heavily influenced by Thomas Jefferson, who worked on writing it with General Lafayette. Lafayette had come to America to aid in the American Revolutionary War in 1777. It was influenced by Jefferson’s other writings, including the American Declaration of Independence, and itself inspired the later 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the Declaration of Independence led later to the writing of the American Constitution, so too did the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen lead to the drafting of a constitution for France.
Bastille Day, or La Fête Nationale, the National Celebration or simply Le Quatorze Juillet, the fourteenth of July has been celebrated for over two hundred years in Paris, except during the German occupation during WWII when General Charles de Gaulle led it in London. Even in my little town in Colorado, French ex-pats — and their FrancophileAmerican friends — dine on fine cuisine and lift a glass of wine to celebrate. My favorite local French bistro, La Baguette, has a 3-course gourmet dinner!
The French say, “Vive la France!” How do you celebrate la fête du 14-Juillet?
Guillaume Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian