History of Bastille Day

A Professor's Perspective On Current Events

Image of Professor Ann Williams, Ph.D.
By Professor Ann Williams, Ph.D.

Celebrate Bastille Day, 2017! Learn about the history and celebrations of July 14th from Professor Ann Williams, professor of French.

French and Francophile communities all over the US are gearing up to celebrate Bastille Day.  Restaurants have special menus, cultural organizations like the Alliance Française plan concerts, parties and friendly competitions like waiters’ races and games of pétanque.  The American President, too, is getting ready to help the French celebrate their national holiday, having accepted President Macron’s invitation to be a part of the commemoration and protocol surrounding this important day.

Bastille Day.  But wait.  In French, it’s not called “le jour de la Bastille”.  Sure, this holiday pays tribute to the people of Paris who, in 1789, stormed the prison “la Bastille”.  But in France, one hears simply, “le quatorze juillet”. Yes, the crowd took the Bastille, a symbol of royal oppression, and freed the seven remaining political prisoners.

Painting of the storming of the Bastille prison

Less symbolic and more important, perhaps, was the practical, tactical reason for attacking this particular fortress.  Upon this important date, following a series of disastrous decisions on the part of and his advisors, the revolutionaries needed the weapons and ammunition stocked there. No longer would the peuple tolerate the grave injustices imposed by the Old Regime, where the nobility and clergy ran rough-shod over 97 percent of the population (le Tiers État). Such lack of representation was to be no more.  French thinker Abbé Sieyès in his pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?” (1789) declared once and for all that sovereignty must belong to the people of a nation.   The French Revolution, inspired by the American experience, nourished by Enlightenment philosophers and born out of a fundamental need for a new system of government showed the world that radical change is possible. Such an event is most certainly worthy of commemoration.

Champs-Elysées, 1900

So how do the French observe this important moment in their history?  What might this July 14th look like?  Early in the morning, one might walk near the Avenue des Champs-Elysées where flags line the length of this most famous of streets.  Security barriers are in place awaiting the crowd that will soon arrive for the military parade.

This article is part of our Professor’s Perspective series—a place for experts to share their views and opinions on current events.

Elite regiments from all branches of the French armed services descend the avenue, accompanied by units from other nations, including American troupes. This prepares the way for the Président de la République and his entourage and guests, to include, this year, the president of France’s longest ally, the United States of America, commemorating the centenary of the US entry into WWI.  While France and the United States are not always in agreement, they are, in fact, the only two modern democracies to have never been at war against each other.

In the evening of the 14 juillet the streets come alive again. Fireworks displays and traditional Bals des Pompiers (Firemens’ balls) bring France together in cities and towns to celebrate Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité.    It is a célébration populaire  – best translated asfor the people”, a joyous reminder that people can truly shape the future of a nation.

Bastille Day on the 14th July in Paris, taken on the Pont de la Concorde overlooking the Eiffel Tower, Trocadero and the Seine.

For more with Professor Williams, check out “Learning French: A Rendezvous with French-Speaking Cultures,” on The Great Courses Plus!