The History of Bastille Day (and a Few Weird Facts)

Last Updated on July 11, 2023

The first "Fete de la Prise de la Bastille" was celebrated on July 14th, 1880-- over a century following the events of 1789. Public domain
The first “Anniversaire de la Prise de la Bastille” (anniversary of the storming of the Bastille) was celebrated on July 14th, 1880over a century following the events of 1789. Public domain

On July 14th, Paris will once again celebrate Bastille Day, or the Fête Nationale (National Holiday) with all the pomp, circumstance and vibrancy we’ve come to expect. The grand, traditional military parade on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées is also part of the festivities, alongside others such as campy firemen’s balls.

Traditional fireworks displays around the Eiffel Tower will light the skies over Paris, as well as elsewhere in France.

{Related: What to Do in Paris in July?}

But while the Fête Nationale of July 14th is often imagined to be an event that was celebrated consistently and openly from the French Revolution of 1789 onward, little could be further from the truth.

Keep reading for a few little-known, curious facts about the history of Bastille Day and the Fête Nationale— and why its celebration is a complex one that’s not as firmly associated with anti-monarchy as you may think.

A Complex History That Starts in the Third Republic

Fete de la Bastille, 14 Juillet 1880, Paris. Public domain
An illustration showing Fête Nationale celebrations at the Colonne de Juillet, Place de la Bastille, 14 July 1880, Paris. Public domain

It wasn’t until 1880 that the Fête Nationale took its (more or less) current form, established through a law dated July 6th under France’s Third Republic.

Make no mistake: the French Revolution of 1789 was only the beginning of a slow, often torturous movement toward an enduring parliamentary republic.

After decades of counter-revolutions, Napoleonic Empires and restoration monarchies, the Third Republic marked a new phase in the French revolutionary project: the establishment of a more-or-less stable parliamentary democracy.

It lasted for a remarkably long 70 years, from 1870 to 1940– longer than any French Republic to date.

Alfred Roll,  Le 14 Juillet 1880 (1881; Petit Palais, Paris)
Alfred Roll, “Le 14 Juillet 1880” (1881; Petit Palais, Paris)

And in 1880, the official legal recognition of 14 July as France’s Fête Nationale in fact referred to two separate and ideologically conflicting occasions, creating significant ambiguity from the outset.

First, it recognized the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on that date in 1789, seen as emblematic of the fall of absolutist monarchy in France, and as marking the beginning of the nation’s first Revolution.

Storming of the Bastille Prison in Paris, 14 Juillet 1789. Historic ilustration/public domain
Citizens of Paris, headed by the National Guards, storm the Bastille prison in an event which has come to be seen as the start of the French Revolution, 14th July 1789. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Secondly, July 14th was chosen to commemorate the celebration of a now mostly-forgotten occasion on the same day in 1790, called the Fête de la Fédération.

Staged as a celebration of national unity, it was attended by King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and pro-monarchist factions as well as revolutionaries.

Fete de la Federation, Champ de Mars, Paris, 1790

The immense celebration was held on the Champ de Mars, then outside the bounds of Paris and well before the Eiffel Tower loomed over the vast field. It marked a year exactly since the storming and destruction of the Bastille prison. But according to historians, no mention of the Bastille was made during the ceremony.

In 1790, the period of revolutionary violence known as the “Reign of Terror” was still three years away, and the guillotine was not yet set up on the Place de la Concorde, much less conceived of as a tool for ridding the country of monarchs, counter-revolutionaries and dissidents.

In the early days of the Revolution, France opted for a constitutional monarchy– similar to the type that still reigns in the United Kingdom– centred around a representative assembly.

King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were present at the national celebration of 1790. Louis, who was now called “King of the French” instead of “King of France”– swore an oath to the not-yet-ratified constitution, following one from the legendary Lafayette.

Marie Antoinette is even reported to have held up her young son, the prince, and declared “This is my son, who, like me, joins in the same sentiments”.

Meanwhile, some 100,000 fédérés— citizen volunteers from dozens of French provinces — traveled to the Champ de Mars for the occasion, striking tambours and flying flags.

According to historians, crowds responded to the king’s sermon with shouts of approval (Vive le Roi! Vive la Reine!) and a Catholic mass was celebrated alongside solemn pledges to uphold new constitutional values.

Lafeyette leading the constitutional oath at the Fete de la Federation on 14 July, 1790, Paris. Musée Carnavalet
The Franco-American revolutionary leader Lafeyette leading the constitutional oath at the Fete de la Federation on 14 July, 1790, Paris. Musée Carnavalet

National delegations from around the world were also present at the 1790 celebration, including ones from the fledgling United States. Thomas Paine John Paul Jones, and other American delegates flew their new flag at the Fete de de Federation, marking the first time it was unfurled outside of the United States.

In short, the 1790 occasion marked a peaceful period in the early stages of the 1789 Revolution favored by pro-monarchists– one that most historians note was illusory and fleeting.

So why would the Fete Nationale be as much associated with the memory of the 1790 event as much as it was to that of the storming of the Bastille? Why would the leaders of the Third Republic not simply choose the latter, a powerful symbol of anti-monarchist action and sentiment?

Many historians point to a need to create a new sense of symbolic unity during the early years of the Third Republic, perhaps in part to appease conservatives and pro-monarchists. The storming of the Bastille was, they note, seen by many legislators as too “bloody” and violent an event to achieve consensus around.

They point to a Senate report following a debate around the law that underlined the decision in these terms:

« Rappelons que le 14 juillet 1789, ce 14 juillet qui vit prendre la Bastille, fut suivi d’un autre 14 juillet, celui de 1790, qui consacra le premier par l’adhésion de la France entière […]. Cette seconde journée du 14 juillet, qui n’a coûté ni une goutte de sang ni une larme, cette journée de la Grande Fédération, nous espérons qu’aucun de vous ne refusera de se joindre à nous pour la renouveler et la perpétuer, comme le symbole de l’union fraternelle de toutes les parties de la France et de tous les citoyens français dans la liberté et l’égalité….»

(“Let us remember that 14 July 1789, this 14th of July that saw the storming of the Bastille, was followed by another….that of 1790, that consecrated the first {date} through the participation of all of France…This second 14th of July, which cost neither a drop of blood nor a tear, this day of Grand Federation, we hope none of you will refuse to join us in perpetuating and reinventing it, as a symbol of fraternal union between all parts and citizens of France in liberty and equality…

In other words, by initially framing “La Fete Nationale” as one that celebrated both the toppling of the absolutist monarchy and the formation of a constitutional one (albeit one that only lasted for a year), lawmakers attempted to appeal to all political factions and historic currents.

Bastille Won Out in Popular Imagination

Bastille Day now mostly commemorates the events of July 14th, 1789.

What’s odd and interesting about all this from a current standpoint, of course, is that we’ve all but forgotten the Fete de la Féderation, and the brief period of constitutional monarchy it celebrated.

Around the world, from France to the US to the Czech Republic, “Bastille Day” is celebrated with parades, fireworks, traditional French food and wine, and even kitschy historical re-enactments of the storming of the Bastille prison.

The events of that day continue to be privileged in the popular imagination as emblematic of both the French Revolution of 1789, and the current-day French values of “liberté-égalité-fraternité”(liberty, equality, fraternity) that are meant to be at the heart of the Fete Nationale on July 14th.

{Related: How the French Revolutionary Calendar Disrupted Time Itself, For a Time}

So while the 1880 law discussed above didn’t in fact privilege the storming of the Bastille as “the” event to honor on July 14th, that revolutionary act has now become synonymous with the national holiday. Hence, “Bastille Day”.

….But “Bastille Day” Has Often Been Considered Subversive, & Been Celebrated in Secret…

Adding to the complexity of the event’s history is the fact that celebrating “Bastille Day” was frowned upon and considered subversive for a long period following the French Revolution of 1789.

During the First Empire under Napoléon I, for example, the French national holiday was celebrated as “Saint-Napoléon” on August 15th, supplanting July 14th and moving the focus from the people to the person of the Emperor himself.

Why August 15th, you may ask? It was– you guessed it– Napoléon’s birthday. The date of July 14th, which continued to be associated with the revolutionary and populist symbolism of the Bastille, was observed only in secret, during clandestine celebrations. This initial period of “underground” celebration lasted roughly between 1804 and 1848.

In 1849, during the short-lived Second Republic that followed the Revolution of 1848 (also known as the “February Revolution”), a new national holiday was declared on May 4th, marking the anniversary of the declaration of a new Republic.

Of course, it wouldn’t last. From 1852, Napoléon III re-instituted “Saint-Napoléon day, and all celebration of 14th July went underground until it was revived in 1880.

And to loop back to the dark period of World War II, the collaborationist and authoritarian government at Vichy recast July 14th as a day of “national grieving”, uneasy with its revolutionary and democratic associations.

{Related: The Pretty Paris Building With a Dark History of Nazi Collaboration}

Led by the Maréchal Pétain in the formerly quiet spa town of Vichy, the eponymous government moved from 1940 to reframe the “Fete Nationale” in new, largely antidemocratic terms.

Rather than marking a festive day to celebrate the former Republic’s values of liberty, equality and fraternity, but to commemorate and mourn the patriotic French soldiers who died during World War I, between 1914 and 1918.

And during the period, French Resistance movements in both France and abroad distributed tracts and called for secret assemblies to commemorate the 14th of July as part of anti-fascist actions.

This 1942 tract from a group called the “Patriotic Youth Front” invokes the 14th of July and the powerful symbol of the Bastille as a “national day of struggle for the liberation of the nation”.

And during the years of Occupation, the General Charle de Gaulle, leader of “Free France” and its associated resistance movements, observed the Fete de la Bastille from exile in London.

Once again, and to conclude, looking back at the complex history of “Bastille Day” proves that the meaning and context of July 14th in France have continually shifted since 1789.

So while we can bemoan the scaled-back celebrations this year, it’s interesting and worthwhile to remember that they haven’t been as constant in their form or signification as we like to believe they’ve been.

Claude Monet, Rue Montorgueil, La Fete Nationale, 1878.

On that note, I leave you to celebrate in whatever form you see fit or are able to. For ideas on how to celebrate Bastille Day in Paris this year, see our full guide. Joyeuse Fete Nationale!

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