What you may not know about the 14th July French National Day

The 14th of July hasn’t always been celebrated in France as the National Day. It is quite recent actually, at least if you consider that the end of the 19th century is recent.

The first celebration of the National Day on the 14th July was made in 1880. Before that date, the National Day was celebrated on several other days (they changed several times).


Some people, including French people themselves, do not know that on that day, which is supposed to commemorate the Storming of the Bastille prison, and which is, for that reason, sometimes called in England and other English speaking countries “Bastille Day”, we do not really celebrate that event itself. Originally, at least, it was not that event that was celebrated.

The Bastille prison

Credits: Wikipedia.

On the 14th of July, in fact, we are supposed to be celebrating the “Fête de la Fédération” which was a festival that took place on the 14th July 1790, apparently at the initiative of La Fayette (I read it in one article but couldn’t check this information anywhere else), to commemorate the first anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. A tiny and subtle difference, but worth being noted nevertheless.

You may have heard of La Fayette, the French 18th century aristocrat who supported the American revolutionary war and sailed to Boston on his war ship L’Hermione*, a frigate, when he was only 23 years old, to support George Washington’s armies in the War of Independence. Please read more about the extraordinary reconstruction of the Hermione in France at the end of this article.

In the Middle Ages, the word "bastille" meant " a fortress". It was a synonym of the word fortress. It wasn't referring to the famous prison, as the Bastille prison itself was built in the 14th century. The construction started in 1370.


There is a funny anecdote about the 14th of July 1789. As you may know, France was in the middle of a revolution, as it officially started on 5th May 1789, and on the 14th of July, Louis XVI, who was the King of France, wrote only one word in his diary: “Rien”. “Nothing”.

Nobody knows what he meant by that, but it is assumed nowadays that he was talking about the fact he did not catch any animal when hunting on that day. If this is really the case (unless he was ironic about the Storming of the Bastille), it is the sign, as some people joke about it, that he had obviously understood the consequences this event was going to have in the future…


There was only seven prisonners left in the huge Bastille prison when it was captured. Their cells were not even closed. Four of them were simple crooks : Jean Antoine PujadeBernard LarocheJean Béchade and Jean La Corrège. There was Auguste Tavernier, who was suspected of a murder attempt against Louis XV (15th, in  other words number 16th's father) in 1757. The last two were aristocrats, Count Hubert de Solages, and Count de Whyte de Malleville. They were both put in jail at the request of their families, the first one because he was depraved, and the second one because he was apparently mad. All prisonners were freed by the revolutionaries, but they did not remain free for a very long time as they were arrested again a few days later and sent to another jail.

There was an eighth prisonner in the Bastille, the count of Lorges, except that this one never existed, but was invented by the revolutionaries to create a popular legend. Maybe they thought that four crooks, a suspect, a depraved man and a mad man were not very interesting prisonners, and it was better to free and carry in triumph in the streets of Paris somebody a bit more glamourous.

The prison was demolished stone by stone (some of them were re-used for the construction of Parisian buildings) and what is ironic is that Louis XVI had planned to demolish the prison soon anyway, as he considered it completely useless.


Nowadays, in the metro station Bastille, you can see some remains of the foundations of the prison. You can also see part of one of the towers’ foundations, called the “Tour de la Liberté” (“Liberty Tower”, I am not joking) that was moved when the metro was built and exhibited in a garden nearby. Finally, the perimeter of the fortress is marked on Bastille Square by some stones or metal disks on the ground to show where the prison was standing.


What really impressed me when I saw them was the keys of the Bastille prison in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. You can also see a scale model of the prison, made with one of its stones, and even the rope ladder that the Knight of Latude, le Chevalier de Latude, used to escape from the prison! 

Actually, this museum has an incredibly rich collection of art and souvenirs concerning the Bastille prison and the 14th July 1789.

The traditional 14th July parade on the Champs Elysées in Paris is even more recent: parades in the Capital of France have been taking place for a long time (most of the time from Bastille to République, for those who know Paris), but the first parade on the Champs Elysées was in 1980.

This traditional parade is a military one. The general order in the parade can vary, but it always starts with the President driving down the Champs Elysées in a military vehicle, then the “Patrouille de France”, the equivalent of the British “Red Arrows”, fly over La Défense, the business district in the west of Paris, down to the Arc de Triomphe, then down the Champs Elysées, then Rivoli Street, where the Louvre is, down to Bastille, and then back to base I guess. After the Patrouille de France come all the other planes, later on in the parade there will be the helicopters, and the armies and military vehicles marching, riding and driving down the avenue.

The parade is shown on television of course, and people around the world can follow it on the French (and Francophone) channel TV5Monde, that broadcasts in French everywhere on our beautiful planet.


Also, it is quite funny and ironic that we are now celebrating the National Day by lauching fireworks, which are in fact the symbol of Monarchy, on a revolutionary day and the day which symbolizes the most the reject, by the French people of 1789 and Parisians in particular, of aristocracy and Monarchy…

One of the most spectacular and beautiful 14th of July fireworks takes place at the Eiffel Tower. 

There is often a theme attached to it, and in 2014, for example, the theme was “Guerres et Paix”. “Wars and Peace”. Here is an excerpt of this event:


Here is an excerpt of the 2020 fireworks:


There is another very nice tradition on the 14th of July, which is the “Bal des pompiers”, the firefighters’ dancing ball, which usually takes place… on the 13th of July in the evening. It all started when a firefighter, who was going home after the 1937 parade, decided to show his fire station in Carpeau street, in Montmartre, to some Parisians who were admiring his uniform. The visit was a huge success in the neighbourhood and, very soon, the news spread all over Paris that you could visit your nearest fire station on the 14th July. At the end of the 1930s, this visit was turned into a dancing ball. The tradition of the firefighters’ dancing ball is now respected all over France. It is also the occasion for the people to show their gratefulness towards firefighters, and meet their neighbours on a nice and convivial occasion.

Here is a short video (2mn 41s) showing the 2018 Bal des Pompiers in Versailles:

Some 14th July balls in France (organised or not by firefighters) are still held with the sound of the accordion. This one took place in a little town near Dijon (you know, the mustard...)

As the 14th of July was first celebrated in 1880, it was not the 14th July that Claude Monet painted in his famous paintings called “La rue Montorgueil” and “La rue St Denis”, but the festival of the “National Day of peace and work” held on the 30th June 1878. The first painting is now in the Orsay Museum, an old railway station along the river Seine that was transformed into an art museum, and the second one is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Rouen.

On the contrary, Vincent Van Gogh did paint the atmosphere of the 14th July in his famous painting “La Fête du 14 juillet à Paris” in 1886, as well as Raoul Dufy’s “La Rue Pavoisée", representing a street in the town of Le Havre, that he painted in 1906.

You can see in this article some other paintings on the theme of the 14th July.

In this other article about the 14th July in paintings, you can see another version of Dufy’s “La Rue Pavoisée”. I am not an expert in paintings, so I suppose he must have painted several versions on the same theme.


This article gives a few examples of French films about the 14th July, and this one lists a few French books on the theme of the 14th July.


 The reconstruction of the Hermione.

* In 1997, a repliqua of L’Hermione was started to be built in Rochefort, an Atlantic ocean town near La Rochelle. The objective was to sail again across the Atlantic ocean to go and celebrate the American Revolution and the 4th July in the USA.

The Hermione is nicknamed “La Frégate de la Liberté”, “Liberty Frigate”. She is one of the symbols of friendship between France and the USA.


I was lucky enough to visit Rochefort at that time, and see the very beginning of the reconstruction, when they were just starting the hull (video 6mn 25s). It was incredibly impressing already.

You can see some of the stages of the reconstruction, the preparation of the crew, and finally the departure, in this other very beautiful video  (7mn 03s).


Nearly everything (apart from things related to safety for example), even the canons, was rebuilt exactly like in the original 18th century ship. Even the Captain’s cabin is the exact copy of La Fayette’s! The quality of the reconstruction had to be perfect. It took them nearly 20 years to complete the project!

Two thousand oak trees were used for this reconstruction. It now reminds me a little bit of what we are doing at the moment in Paris to rebuild Notre Dame, which is due to reopen for the 2024 Summer Olympic games in Paris.

On the 18th April 2015, L’Hermione finally set sails for her four months historic maiden journey to America...

L'Hermione arrives in New York on 4th July 2015

“Rêvons…” (Let’s dream) says the title of this video.



A little bit of vocabulary about the 14th July:

La fête nationale : Bastille Day

Le défilé : the parade

Le feu d'artifice : the firework

Le drapeau : the flag

Embastiller : in the middle ages it meant to surround with walls and fortresses, later it meant to put in jail in the Bastille prison.

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