July 14th, France’s national holiday – Origin, evolution, history

France’s national holiday, July 14, which dates back only to 1880, refers to both the Bastille Day of July 14, 1789 and the Fête de la Fédération of July 14, 1790, i.e. to the French Revolution. How are we to understand all this?

The storming of the Bastille and preparations for the Fête de la Fédération on July 14, 1790

It all began with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 (see ..URL). Those days in July 1789 weren’t exactly festive. Machine-gun fire, the destruction of the Bastille, deaths and the beginning of the end of absolute monarchy.


In an attempt to reunite the nation following the storming of the Bastille and the other upheavals that followed, the governments of the day decided to convene a large gathering on the Champ-de-Mars in Paris on July 14, 1790. One hundred thousand people gathered in a climate of national unity, in the presence of the king and the deputies. This was the Fête de la Fédération.

On July 1, 1790, work began to transform the Champ-de-Mars into a vast circus capable of holding 100,000 people, with the Altar de la Patrie at its center. The work, for which the goodwill of Parisians was called upon, was carried out in a climate of fraternity and enthusiasm. Workers from the faubourg Saint-Antoine rubbed shoulders with the bourgeoisie on the construction site.

We can even see Louis XVI giving a blow with a pickaxe, or La Fayette in his shirt arm. On the day in question, some 100,000 federate soldiers from every department entered Paris and marched from the Bastille to the Champ-de-Mars.

The Fête de la Fédération on July 14, 1790 and the unity of France

Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and the Dauphin take their places in the pavilion opposite the École Militaire. On the opposite side, a triumphal arch was erected. The stands were packed with 260,000 Parisians.

Charles Thévenin (1764-1838). “La Fête de la Fédération, le 14 juillet 1790, au Champ-de-Mars”. Huile sur toile. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

On this July 14, 1790, Talleyrand celebrated mass. Then, at the climax of the ceremony, La Fayette took the oath of loyalty to the Nation, the King and the law, which was repeated by the crowd.

Finally, the King took his turn to swear loyalty to the new laws: “I, King of the French, swear to use the power delegated to me by the constitutional law of the State, to uphold the Constitution decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by me, and to enforce the laws”.
The Queen, rising to her feet and pointing to the Dauphin, declares: “This is my son, he is united, as am I, in the same sentiments”. The Marquis de Ferrières recalls that “this unexpected movement was paid for by a thousand cries of: vive le roi, vive la reine, vive Monsieur le dauphin!”. The monarchy went unchallenged, the Revolution was ratified, and national unity celebrated.

Less than three years later, the Republic was proclaimed and Louis XVI executed. But what happened?

The unity of 1790 was short-lived

On June 20 and 21, 1791, faced with the collapse of his power, Louis XVI chose to flee the kingdom, but was caught and arrested at Varennes in Lorraine (about 250 km east of Paris, and about 50 km north of Verdun near the near the french border).

In November 1791, the new Legislative Assembly summoned all refractory priests to take the oath. This time, the king vetoed the order.

On February 1, 1792, four hundred insertive priests were interned in Angers. The law of May 27, 1792 threatened all priests with deportation. The king again vetoed the law and it was suspended.

On April 20, 1792, the King and the Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria. Allied with Prussia, the latter had massed its troops on the borders.

The Assembly passed a decree to form a camp of 20,000 federates (or volunteers) under the walls of the capital to defend it. Once again, the king vetoed the decree.

On June 20, 1792, the revolutionary clubs ask the Assembly to strip the King of his veto, and then storm the Tuileries Palace, where the royal family resides. They marched in front of Louis XVI, shouting “Down with the veto! They even forced the monarch to don a red bonnet and drink a glass of wine “à la santé du peuple! But Louis XVI was undaunted and conceded nothing to the crowd.

Nevertheless, tempers flared. On July 11, the Legislative Assembly decreed “la patrie en danger” and mobilized the country in anticipation of foreign invasion.

In Paris, detachments of the National Guard marched through the streets to music, preceded by a tricolor banner bearing the words: “Citoyens, la patrie est en danger” (“Citizens, the fatherland is in danger”). Despite the King’s veto, the deputies took the liberty of authorizing the federates of the départements to reach Paris.

This is how the Marseillais arrived in the capital of Paris, valiantly singing the Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin… which Parisians later renamed the “Marseillaise”.

The Fête de la Fédération on July 14, 1792

Two years after the first, there was another Fête de la Fédération on July 14, 1792. Very little is said about it. Like its predecessor, it took place on the Champ-de-Mars. The decorations were more sober and the crowd was smaller, but very hostile to the king. Eighty-three Fédérés tents, one for each department, and eighty-three trees provided the backdrop.

A pyre was set up at the foot of one of the trees, at the foot of the altar of the Patrie. Hanging from the branches of the tree are shields, escutcheons, helmets, tiaras, crowns, blue and even red cords – the decorations of the Ancien Régime. Louis XVI, accompanied by a handful of loyal followers who serve as his bodyguard, arrives on the Champ de Mars to renew his oath. As he passed, the crowd shouted: “Down with Madame Veto! Down with the Austrian!”

At the moment of the oath, 54 cannons fired simultaneously, covering Louis XVI’s voice. The President of the Assembly then asked the King to light the pyre that would destroy the symbols of feudalism. Very calmly, the King replied: “There is no more feudalism”, then returned to the rostrum.

As he returned to the Tuileries, the regular troops cheered the king. The next day, they had to leave Paris.

The Prussian army under the command of the Duke of Brunswick (or Braunschweig) was camped in Koblenz, on the banks of the Rhine. On July 25, he published a manifesto threatening to “deliver Paris to military execution and total subversion” if “the royal family suffered the slightest outrage”.
Contrary to his expectations, the threat provoked a patriotic outburst from the French.

Three weeks later, on August 10, the Tuileries were taken and sacked by the Fédérés… and massacred. There would be no further Fête de la Fédération.

The Fête de la Fondation de la république and its continuation until 1880

The “Fête de la fondation de la République” was celebrated every year on the 1st of Vendémiaire (September 22nd, 23rd or 24th), from 1793 until 1803.

The First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte abandoned the Fête de la Fédération (known as the Fête de la Concorde) from 1804, retaining only celebrations honoring his person: the Imperial Coronation Day on December 2, and Saint-Napoleon, instituted on August 15 by the decree of February 19, 1806. July 14, a subversive holiday, was no longer commemorated other than in clandestine celebrations from 1804 to 1848.
In 1849, a national holiday was celebrated on May 4, the anniversary of the proclamation or ratification of the Republic by the National Constituent Assembly of the 2nd Republic (1848-1852).

In 1852, Napoleon III restored Saint-Napoleon’s Day.

Following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the national holiday tended to commemorate a nation stripped of Alsace-Lorraine, with the Third Republic preparing the spirits for a desire for revenge by exalting the nation’s army in a military parade.
On June 30, 1878, a national holiday was held during the Universal Exhibition.

A new look at the France’s national holiday, in 1880 only

It wasn’t until the beginning of 1879 that the Republicans took control of all the country’s institutions. The Republic took root through the adoption of a set of symbols, rituals and collective practices. In 1880, Republican deputies were faced with the need to offer the nation a collective celebration, the date of which had to be fixed and its content organized.

The 14th of July has become a major topic of debate, whether or not it should become France’s national holiday. Thanks to the writings of Victor Hugo and Michelet, the collective memory had taken hold of this historical substratum and elevated it to the status of a founding event, a victory of the people over royal arbitrariness. Convinced republicans were sensitive to the exaltation of the popular heroism of July 14, 1789. Moderate Republicans and some Orleanists appreciated the federating value of July 14, 1790, which softened the violent nature of the storming of the Bastille and extended the Parisian event to the entire nation, united around a common project.

A law was tabled by Benjamin Raspail, a French deputy, on May 21, 1880, passed on June 8 and promulgated on July 6, simply stating that “The Republic adopts July 14 as France’s national holiday”. In the early days, it was the date of July 14, 1790 that was emphasized, not that of July 14, 1789: “This second day of July 14, which cost neither a drop of blood nor a tear, this day of the Great Federation, we hope that none of you will refuse to join us in renewing and perpetuating it, as the symbol of the fraternal union of all parts of France and all French citizens in liberty and equality”.

The 1st France’s national holiday on July 14, 1880

The jubilation of July 14, 1880 exorcised the humiliation of losing the flags in 1870, and strengthened the bond between the army and the people. This festival of the Republic asserted itself as a festival without God: the clergy, the mass and the Te Deum were ousted.

The military parade brings together citizens from all regions of France, enlisted on the principle of conscription. Later in the day, republican banquets, group games and popular dances opened to the sound of brass bands. They illustrate the jubilation of the storming of the Bastille, and are all the more joyous for coinciding with the end of the school calendar and the end of agricultural work. Torchlight processions and fireworks complete this memorable July 14, 1880.

Events and celebrations throughout France on the July 14th, France’s national holiday

Today, the most important event is the military parade in Paris. But not only in Paris. Weapons are also taken up in France’s main cities, such as Lyon. Finally, in each of the country’s 36,000 communes, a ceremony is held at the occasion of the France’s national holiday in front of the Monuments to those who died for their country, with speeches by the Mayor, the presence of representative authorities, the laying of flowers and, if there is a local brass band, the playing of the Last Post.

July 14th is also the occasion for fireworks displays.

July 14th fireworks and popular dances

In Paris, of course, from the Esplanade du Trocadéro, opposite the Eiffel Tower in general, but also in many other towns.
These nocturnal spectacles take place around open sites within cities, such as esplanades, parks or waterways. Despite their sometimes high cost, fireworks displays are very popular with the public. Fireworks can be set off the evening before (July 13).

These “sound and light” pyrotechnic displays make France a Mecca for fireworks, with fireworks competitions organized all year round.

These fireworks displays, reflecting the wealth of the commune, sometimes take place on July 13, and are usually followed by a popular ball, often hosted by firefighters, to benefit their solidarity associations. Often, the ball takes place on July 13, as do the fireworks, on the eve of a public holiday, allowing people to go to work early in the morning on July 15. This is known as the “July 14th Eve Ball”. There are three main types of ball: the traditional band or fanfare (called a banda in the south of the country), the bal musette, which fell into disuse between the 1970s and the 2010s, and finally, the most common, balls organized by itinerant orchestras specialized in village festivals.

The military parade in Paris on France’s national holiday of 1919

On July 14, 1880, the Champ-de-Mars was abandoned in favor of the Longchamp racecourse. Political power, on behalf of the Nation, invested the army with the mission of protecting and representing it, and fulfilling the missions assigned to it. The 14th of July and France’s national holiday was established as a patriotic and militant celebration, republican and anti-clerical. Alongside the military parade, brass bands and orchestras played music, and the day ended with a popular ball.

The July 14th military parade was held for the first time on the Champs-Élysées in 1919, as an echo of victory in the Great War. French troops triumphantly march through Paris from west to east, from Place de l’Étoile to Place de la République. The parade passes under the Arc de Triomphe, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier not being installed under the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile until 1921.
That year, the July 14th parade was exceptionally solemn: the entire French army and allied troops marched behind Marshals Joffre and Foch, including a thousand wounded, from the Avenue de la Grande Armée via the Champs-Élysées to the Place de la République.

Another anecdote from 1919: even though airmen had made an outstanding contribution during the First World War, they were asked to march on foot. In response, a few weeks after July 14th, Chief Warrant Officer Charles Godefroy flew not over, but under the Arc de Triomphe. The first July 14th flypast finally took place in 1934.

Even between 1925 and 1928, no parades were organized, just a simple ceremony on Place de l’Etoile.

July 14th parades during the 2nd World War

From 1940 to 1944, no military parades were held on July 14 in Paris. France was under German occupation. However, on July 14, 1940, the first Free French marched through the streets of London, and in 1942, a company from the future Kieffer Commando of the Free French Naval Forces took part in the parade.

The post-World War II military parade on July 14, 1945

July 14, 1945 was also preceded by three days of civic rejoicing. It’s worth remembering that while German troops surrendered Paris on August 25, 1944, the last of France’s territories were not liberated until May 11, 1945. It was not until February 9, 1945, with the recapture of the town of Colmar, that Eastern France was completely liberated. In the Alps, the passes leading to Italy were not liberated until the end of April, and the last coastal pockets where German troops had been entrenched for many months (Royan, Lorient, La Rochelle, Dunkirk and Saint-Nazaire) were the last territories liberated between April 14 and May 11, 1945.

In 1945, the first France’s national holiday and July 14th parade took place after the Liberation. It took place on the Place de la Bastille, where the official stand was located, but the motorized troops marched down the Champs-Élysées and across the capital. In subsequent years, the venue changed regularly, alternating between the Champs-Élysées and the Cours de Vincennes, and the Grand Boulevards between the Place de la Bastille and the Place de la République. It wasn’t until 1980 that the ceremony was finally held on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

July 14th parades in Paris are always a huge success

More broadly speaking, the July 14th military parade is an unmissable rendezvous between the French and their army, and honors the men and women who serve France and the French people. Every year, it’s an opportunity to showcase the equipment of the armed forces, as well as the units deployed on missions and operations.

In Paris, the traditional military parade on the Champs-Elysées is the subject of meticulous preparation and bears a symbol that evolves with the times, and the opportunity to respond to the political challenges of the moment.

1958-1959: The July 14s of independence and power. These July 14s were the first in which France paraded its heavy weapons. The parade became a showcase for France’s military might. But Charles de Gaulle also wanted to show that France’s rapprochement with the United States had not led to a loss of identity or independence.

From 1974 to 1979, the venue for the parade varied. In 1974: Valéry Giscard d’Estaing innovated by changing the location of the parade each year, in keeping with the tradition of revolutionary Paris. 1974: Bastille-République, 1975: Cours de Vincennes, 1976: Champs-Élysées, 1977: École Militaire, 1978: Champs-Élysées, 1979: République-Bastille. But in 1980, the Champs-Élysées once again became the setting for the parade.

Traditionally, the pioneers (soldiers) of the 1st Foreign Regiment (La Légion Étrangère) march down the Champs-Élysées in their traditional axe and leather apron, followed by the music of the Foreign Legion. Pioneers are traditionally the last of the parade. This is because they march more slowly than the other units, at a rate of 88 steps per minute instead of 120.

July 14th in Paris isn’t just a parade down the Champs Élysées!

Of course, there are the popular balls, often held in fire stations (there are 71 fire stations in Paris and the immediate suburbs), or even in a square or at a crossroads.


Then there are the fireworks displays, and above all the great Eiffel Tower fireworks display, which can be admired from the bridges over the Seine, from the surrounding hills or during a night cruise on the Seine (reservations required), or on television. The fireworks are fired from the Jardins du Trocadéro, the Pont d’Iéna, and the Eiffel Tower itself. The show has acquired international renown over the years, attracting between 500,000 and 1,000,000 spectators every year.

Then there are the illuminated streets and avenues, where you can stroll in the evening in the warmth of the usually mild and dry months of July.
Finally, the 14th of July in Paris was the occasion for some exceptional events:

1989: The bicentenary orchestrated by Jean Paul Goude: 1 million people on the Champs Elysées for this exceptional show, which also had as many admirers as detractors, outraged by its outrageous cost. It has to be said that the President of the time (François Mitterrand) has always had a problem with figures. It was also the day of the inauguration of the Grande Arche de la Défense, 100 years after the Eiffel Tower.

1990: Jean Michel Jarre’s gigantic concert at La Défense in Paris: 1,500,000 people.

1994: Eurocorps takes part in the Bastille Day parade, symbolizing Franco-German reconciliation. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, German soldiers march in France, under the banner of Franco-German reconciliation within a European framework.

The champagne-filled garden party traditionally held in the grounds of the Élysée Palace after the parade welcomed hundreds of heroes and anonymous victims in 2007, 2008 and 2009. It was finally abolished by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, against a backdrop of economic austerity, and has not been reinstated since.

An exception: where the national holiday is in August

The commune of Viriat, in the Ain department north-east of Lyon, does indeed commemorate the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, but on the following August 1st.
But it celebrates it a little later, in all legality, and has done so since Louis XVI.

On July 11, 1880, the Viriat town council passed a by-law postponing the celebration of the Fête Nationale to the first Sunday in August, even though the Raspail law of July 1880 instituted the commemoration of the storming of the Bastille on July 14. The hypothesis put forward by the town hall is that farmers were in the middle of harvesting at the time. No time for celebration. They preferred to wait until the end of the harvest to celebrate the event.
This custom lasted until the Covid. It’s hard to find a reference after this date.

July 14th, France’s national holiday in paintings

Many artists were inspired by the French national holiday. In 1873, Alfred Sisley painted La Seine au Point-du-Jour, July 14 near the Porte de Saint-Cloud during the July 14 festivities.

In 1875, the same artist painted Jour de Fête à Marly-le-Roi, previously known as 14 Juillet à Marly-le-Roi. He was awarded “le tableau d’or”, a prize that painters could win.

The 1878 Fête organized to mark the Universal Exhibition was immortalized in several paintings by Claude Monet (La Rue Montorgueil à Paris. Fête du 30 juin 1878.) and Édouard Manet (La Rue Mosnier aux drapeaux.).


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