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Bastille Day

Updated on 24/02/23

Bastille Day: France's National Celebration on the 14th of July


The 14th of July is France’s annual day of national celebration! In the public imagination, this day celebrates the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution, however in reality it actually commemorates the Federation of France in 1790 (Fête de la Fédération de 1790). This latter event gave rise to numerous symbols representing the French Republic: the Marseillaise (the French national anthem), Marianne, the red, white and blue flag etc. What happened, however, on the 14th of July 1789 and why did this day become France’s national day of celebration?

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The French Revolution

The 14th of July is a special day in France. On the morning of the 14th of July 1789, the people of Paris took up arms and headed towards the Bastille, an ancient royal fortress which served as a prison for criminals, spies and the king’s opponents. At this time in history, France was ruled by a monarchy, times were hard for the French people and discontent was high. They had lost faith in the king - Louis XVI - due to significant political, economic and social factors.

In 1793 Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed in the place de la Révolution (today named place de la Concorde). The storming of the Bastille marks the start of a long period of chaos in France and the first victory of the French Republic over the monarchy. It will forever signify the break with the Ancien Régime and the end of French royalty. It bequeathed to France the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which proclaims the equality of citizens in the eyes of the law, the fundamental liberties and sovereignty of the Nation – which is deemed capable of governing through elected representatives. The concept of secularism progressively became one of the key forces protecting human rights.

Which lasting symbols were created?

The break with the Ancien Régime during the French Revolution also gave birth to a multitude of symbols which still represent today’s French Republic. From the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the motto ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity) is one of the main contributions of the Revolution as an early attempt at democracy. Adopted as the French national anthem in 1879, the essentially libertarian patriotic song the Marseillaise was a call to war during the Revolution. Also created at this time was the national emblem of the fifth Republic - the red, white and blue flag. The three-coloured flag combined the colour of the monarch (white) and the colours of Paris (blue and red). A symbol of liberty and the Republic, the first representations of a woman wearing a cap of liberty appeared during the revolution in the form of Marianne (Liberty Leading the People). A bust of Marianne can be found in each French town hall and resembles some of France’s greatest actors, for example Catherine Deneuve and even Brigitte Bardot.

Commemorations in France and overseas

For over a century France has commemorated the revolutionary 14th of July 1789 and popular festivities occur annually on this day. A number of cities and towns organise a military parade for the day, particularly in Paris, where a large parade takes place on the Champs-Élysées in the presence of the French President and relevant personnel. In numerous French municipalities concerts and balls are organised for the night of the 14th of July and are often followed by a fireworks display.

Even 225 years after the event, the French Revolution is not only well and truly celebrated in France but also resonates elsewhere in the world. It still symbolises a fundamental stage in the move towards individual liberties and universal equality in the world’s history. The French Revolution is celebrated around the world in exhibitions, theatrical representations... and also in Melbourne where “Bastille Day” is celebrated annually in July.

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Alice Lehmann
For the Alliance Française de Melbourne

Translated from French by Bonnie Kate Einsiedel and Laure-Anne Latinier,
students in the Master of Interpreting and Translation Studies at Monash University 

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