Formally called La Fête nationale in France, the French National Day on 14 July is more popularly known as Bastille Day in many English-speaking countries.
Bastille Day commemorates the storming of the Bastille, a fortress-prison in Paris on 14 July, 1789 and also marks the Fête de la Fédération, a celebration of the unity of the French people on 14 July, 1790.
The immediate events that led to Bastille Day began on 19 May 1789, when French Emperor Louis XVI convened the Estates-General to hear their grievances. The Estates-General comprised of the three estates of the French realm and represented the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate). Following inconclusive discussions, representatives of the Third Estate decided to break-away and form a National Assembly, which was later joined by delegates from the other two estates.
Louis XVI eventually recognized the validity of the National Assembly, which renamed itself as the National Constituent Assembly and began functioning as a legislature and drafting a new constitution.
However, following the emperor’s dismissal of the finance minister, who was sympathetic to the Third Estate, the people of Paris, fearful that they and their representatives would be attacked by the royal army, stormed the Bastille on 14 July, 1789.
Besides holding a large cache of ammunition and gunpowder, the Bastille had been known for holding political prisoners whose writings had displeased the royal government, and thus the fortress was a symbol of the absolutism of the monarchy.
When the crowd, reinforced by mutinous soldiers from the French Guard, attacked the Bastille, the commander of the fort capitulated and opened the gates to avoid a mutual massacre. Shortly after the storming of the Bastille, on 4 August, feudalism was abolished and on 26 August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed.
The storming of the Bastille marked the beginning of the French Revolution, which had a profound impact on Europe and many countries around the world. The Revolution helped shape society, religion and ideas, as well as polarized politics in France and surrounding nations for over a century. The Revolution was responsible for giving stimulus to the growth of liberalism, democracy and modern nationalism, as well as bringing about an end to many feudal systems and traditional laws and practices.
A year after the storming of the Bastille, on 14 July, 1790, the Fête de la Fédération was held to celebrate the unity of the French Nation during the French Revolution. The celebrations symbolized the prevailing peace in the country and took place on the Champ de Mars, which was at the time far outside Paris. The popular General Lafayette, as captain of the National Guard of Paris and confidant of the king, took his oath to the constitution, followed by King Louis XVI. After the end of the official celebration, the day ended in a huge four-day popular feast and people celebrated with fireworks.
In1880, law makers in the French Assembly and Senate voted in favor of declaring 14 July as an annual national holiday and decided to celebrate the day throughout the Republic with “all the brilliance that the local resources allow.”
In the debate leading up to the adoption of the holiday, Henri Martin, chairman of the French Senate, noted: “Do not forget that after the day of 14 July 1789, there was the day of 14 July 1790.... This [latter] day cannot be blamed for having shed a drop of blood, for having divided the country. It was the consecration of the unity of France... If some of you might have scruples against the first 14 July, they certainly hold none against the second. Whatever difference which might part us, something hovers over them, it is the great images of national unity, which we all desire, for which we would all stand, willing to die if necessary.”
The highlight of Bastille Day celebrations is the Bastille Day Military Parade, the oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe. Held on the morning of 14 July, the Bastille Day Military Parade passes down the Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, where the President of the French Republic, his government, state’s guests and foreign ambassadors to France stand.
The parade which has been held since 1880 was moved to the Champs-Élysées in 1918 and with the exception of the period of German occupation from 1940 to 1944, when the ceremony took place in London under the command of General de Gaulle, the parade has been the highlight of the National Day celebrations.
At the municipal level, ceremonies are organized in most French communes, featuring a traditional speech of the mayor, followed by a wreath-laying at the local war memorial, with a French honor guard. In addition, marching bands are a common sight throughout the country, often marching from one village to another with local residents following in their wake.
The celebrations of 14 July are also held in in countries around the world with a strong French association. For instance, Bastille Day is celebrated every year with great festivity in Pondicherry, India. Being an important former French colony, Pondicherry celebrates this day with great honor and pride. On the eve of the Bastille Day, retired soldiers engage themselves in parade and celebrate the day with Indian and French National Anthems. On the day, uniformed war soldiers march through the street to honor the French soldiers who were killed in the battles.
London has a large French contingent, and celebrates Bastille Day at various locations including Battersea Park, Camden Town and Kentish Town. In Edinburgh, Scotland, people continue to recall the days of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France with its annual Bastille Day celebration, which is often second only to those of Paris.
Over 50 US cities, including Chicago, New York, New Orleans, San Francisco and St. Louis, hold annual celebrations of Bastille Day.
Rights of Man and the Citizen
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed by France's National Constituent Assembly in August 1789, is a fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human and civil rights around the world. The Declaration was directly influenced by Thomas Jefferson, US President and principal author of the American Declaration of Independence, who worked with French General Lafayette to introduce it to the French National Constituent Assembly in 1789.
The French Declaration was also influenced by the doctrine of ‘natural right’ — the rights of man that are held to be universal: valid at all times and in every place, pertaining to human nature itself. It became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by law. The declaration embodies ideals and aspirations towards which France pledged to struggle in the future.
The French Declaration had a major impact on the development of liberty and democracy in Europe and worldwide. Together with the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen inspired the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.