July 14th- A Day that Changed French History

by Andrea Bouchaud

A nation’s Independence Day is one of its most important holidays, and in France this is no exception. Each year on July 14th, the French celebrate la fête nationale, commonly referred to as le quatorze juillet. In the USA, France’s Independence Day is known as Bastille Day, due to the storming of the Bastille prison on this date in 1789. However, the term “Independence Day” is not actually the correct term for the actual events that occurred on July 14th in France, and France was never actually a colonized country. Instead the French began their fight for independence from an oppressive monarchy on this famous date.

Paris, Franc

The Legend (and Truth) of the Bastille

The French Revolution started with a bold move from French citizens who stormed the Bastille prison in the middle of Paris and released all the prisoners as an affront to the King. The storming of the Bastille on July 14th did capture the King’s attention (and his head later on), earning this event a place as one of the most epic events in French history.

As with any epic historical event, the details tend to grow over time. Though it is true that the French revolutionaries released all the prisoners from the Parisian prison that night, something that is often left out of the story is that there were only seven prisoners imprisoned at the time- not exactly a noteworthy amount. There would have been eight but that eighth prisoner, Marquis de Sade, was transferred from it the day prior to the event. It was during his stay at the Bastille that he wrote what would become his most famous work “Les 120 Journées de Sodome,” from which the word sadism was created.

Eiffel Tower, Paris

In addition to the amount of prisoners being exaggerated or omitted, the actual storming wasn’t as grand as you’d imagine. When the group of angry French revolutionaries arrived at the Bastille looking for gun powder for their newly stolen weapons from Hôtel des Invalides, there was no immediate invasion. Instead, they spoke with the warden who had called for back-up upon their arrival. It was during this conversation when the police arrived…only to join the revolutionaries. With the new additions to their group, the French revolutionaries then stopped talking and took over the Bastille, getting their gunpowder and freeing the seven prisoners simultaneously.

This event at the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789 is considered the event that sparked the French Revolution and the infamous Reign of Terror which followed.

The Start of the French Revolution and a New France(s)

The Bastille was only the beginning of the French Revolution. The taking of this Parisian prison inspired many people to join the growing French Revolutionary movement in record time and numbers. A few years into the latter movement, the beginning of the First Republic (the new government body) was in place and the oppressive French monarchy was abolished. This new government was the first of five republics, though France has been in their fifth republic since 1959. To put these events and the progress of the nation into perspective, since the American Revolution Americans have only had one republic, the same one that was established in 1776 stands today.

Montmartre, Paris

The establishment of the new republic, which was founded by the French people, was also when the Reign of Terror set in. The Reign of Terror was a period of violence in French history, when French revolutionaries beheaded former monarchy leaders and enemies. It was the most grotesque part of the revolution and lasted for about one full year.

During this violent period, a doctor by the name of Dr. Guillotin, offered a more humane and faster way of forceful death, the guillotine (Fun fact: the guillotine that was used during this time period is at the Torture Museum in Amsterdam if you want to visit it). The French got rid of it after they abolished capital punishment in the 1970s, which had always been performed via guillotine.

After the Reign of Terror, France went through many changes and hardships on its way to becoming an independent nation, and that was only during the first republic! It wasn’t always easy finding a government that worked for the French people, but in the end they found the answer in the mid-twentieth century. It has only been 55 years since the installment of the Fifth Republic, but the French have always celebrated the 14th of July as the day that started their quest for a better, more free government.

How do the French Celebrate Independence Day?

Paris air show

Celebrating July 14th in France is a spectacular event. Fireworks, air shows with planes filling the sky with blue, white, and red stripes, and parades, which can be seen in practically every town in France. In Paris, the air show is absolutely amazing, as le tricoloré (the name for the three colors of the French flag) flies over the Le Louvre and other famous sites. If the air show wasn’t enough, an enormous parade of service men and women from different military sects, or un défilé militaire, comes down the most famous boulevard in Paris, le Champs-Élysées, passing through the majestic Arc de Triomphe. But the French save the best for last. Once the sky darkens, the July 14th celebrations go out with a bang (literally) thanks to a larger than life fireworks, or les feux d’artifices, show against the night sky and the Eiffel Tower.

But Paris is not the only place to do something special. Instead of barbecuing with family and friends in the backyard, most French people head to their local fire house to partake in what’s called le bal des pompiers, or the Fireman’s Ball. It’s a gathering of all the town’s residents or residents of that district, if in a city, to come together and eat, dance, and engage in the most favorite French pastime of all- talk and socialize.

What can Students Studying Abroad in France do to celebrate Bastille Day?

To students of French and Francophiles alike, Bastille Day is a very important day. You may not be studying in Paris or France on July 14th, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t celebrate it at home.

Looking for an event? Contact your local Alliance Française to find Bastille Day activities organized in your area.

Prefer something a little quieter? Pick up some French wine, cheese, and a fresh baguette to enjoy with friends (just don’t wear any berets!).