History of Bastille Day

Each year on July 14 Bastille Day is celebrated to commemorate the Storming of the Bastille in Paris on this date in 1798, an important date in the French Revolution. The day features feasting and fireworks, though the center of this celebration is the largest and oldest European military parade along the Avenue of the Champs-Élysées a wide boulevard that runs through Paris and is called la plus belle avenue du monde. Lined by high-end shops and eateries, as well as the Arc of Triumph in the middle, it is certainly the most beautiful avenue in the world that I’ve walked along. Bastille Day is celebrated around the world wherever French ex-patriots, people of French ancestry, and Francophiles live.

This year, American soldiers will lead the military parade down the Champs-Élysées in commemoration of the American troops who served alongside the French in World War I, which America entered 100 years ago.

The history of the event goes back to the to that time in France’s monarchy under King Louis XVI when he invited the common people to voice their grievances about high taxes and rising food prices, but fear of reprisal caused them to storm the fortress/prison known as the Bastille to seize gunpowder and ammunition and to free political prisoners. Shortly thereafter, France’s newly formed National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism and passed in August the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, becoming a fundamental document of the French Revolution.

This document was heavily influenced by Thomas Jefferson who worked on writing it with General Lafayette. Lafayette had come to America to aid in the American Revolutionary War in 1777. It was influenced by Jefferson’s other writings including the American Declaration of Independence, and itself inspired the later 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the Declaration of Independence led later to the writing of the American Constitution, so too did the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen lead to the writing of a constitution for France.

Bastille Day, or La Fête Nationale the National Celebration or simply Le Quatorze Juillet the fourteenth of July has been celebrated for over two hundred years in Paris, except during the German occupation during WWII when it was led by General Charles de Gaulle in London. Even in my little town, French ex-pats dine on fine cuisine and lift a glass of wine to celebrate.

The French say “Vive la France!” How do you celebrate la fête du 14-Juillet?

Guillaume Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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