What is Bastille Day and why do the French celebrate it?

Bastille Day, which is a national holiday in France, celebrates the actions of a mob of Frenchmen, tired of the rule of their king, who stormed a prison to get weapons and free prisoners. It marked the start of the French Revolution.

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Here’s a primer on France’s National Day.

What does the term Bastille Day mean?

Bastille Day is a common English term for French National Day. The celebration, much like America’s Independence Day, takes place on July 14 each year. It is formally called La fete nationale (The National Celebration) or, more commonly in France, La quatorze juillet (the fourteenth of July). The French do not use the term “Bastille Day.”

What was the Bastille?

The Bastille, built in the 1300s, was a structure constructed to protect the city of Paris from attack by the English. Later, the fortress, a symbol of King Louis XVI’s rule, was used as a prison, mainly for more wealthy felons and spies. The Marquis de Sade was once a prisoner there. The building itself was 100 feet tall and surrounded by an 80-foot wide moat.

What does it have to do with the July 14 celebration?

French National Day is a celebration of the storming of the Bastille by revolutionaries which took place on July 14, 1789. A mob got abut 32,000 weapons housed inside a military hospital and swarmed the prison to get the gunpowder inside. The attack came some 48 hours after the people of the country had launched the French Revolution.

Can I go see where this happened?

You can see the spot, but there is nothing of the Bastille left there. It was destroyed on that day in 1789.

Why the revolution?

It started for the usual reasons a revolution does – an out-of-touch monarch oppressing the masses. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette spent extravagantly as unemployment and famine spread in their country. For the French particularly, Louis’ many failings coupled with high taxes and higher food prices was all the spark that was needed. 

So, how did it end?

The revolution went well for the people, not so much for the king and his queen – Marie Antoinette. They would both be executed by the end of that year. A new document that grew out of the revolution, known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, served as a constitution and proclaim the rights of French citizens.

What do people in France do on Bastille day?

Pretty much the same thing we do in the United States on July 4 -- take the day off, spend it with family and friends, eat, celebrate and watch fireworks at night. The oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe is held on July 14 on the Champs-Élysées in Paris in front of the French president and his guests.

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