Bastille Day: A brief history of France’s July 14 national holiday

France celebrates its fête nationale every year with fireworks, concerts and an extravagant military parade down the Champs-Élysées in the presence of the president, a bevy of politicians and often a foreign head of state as an honoured guest. The July 14 date of the fête commemorates two important events in French history. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the holiday’s origins and what to expect on the day.

What is significant about July 14? 

“Bastille Day” is known in France simply as “le Quatorze Juillet”, a reference to the date on which it is held. July 14 became an official national holiday in 1880 to commemorate key turning points in French history. 

The French Revolution officially began on May 5, 1789, when King Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates General to raise more money after he had collected what he could in taxes. But the meeting quickly devolved into a debate over sharing political influence and the poor living conditions endured by the people of France, while the king lived an opulent lifestyle at the Versailles chateau outside Paris. 

On July 14 of that year, a Paris mob – hungry from a poor harvest and angry at the king and government for their suffering – stormed the Bastille prison, which had become a symbol of the absolute power wielded by the monarch after he confined many of his opponents there. The mob freed a handful of prisoners and seized large stores of weapons in what was a first victory for the people over the “old regime” (l’Ancien Régime), the French monarchy dating from around the 16th century. 

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen that same summer called for the establishment of certain “natural and inalienable” rights, including freedom, resistance to oppression and equality before the law. After ratifying the text in October and coming under increasing pressure from the people, King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette left Versailles for Paris.  

These were decisive moments in the French Revolution (1789-1799), which recreated France as a people’s republic founded on the principles of individual liberty and responsible citizenship codified by the famous Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, which remains France’s motto to this day.  

The Feast of the Federation (la Fête de la Fédération) the following year – on July 14, 1790 – saw 300,000 people gather in an amphitheatre constructed especially for the event outside Paris to celebrate the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the achievements of the French Revolution, marking the first time France’s national holiday was celebrated.  

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette died by the guillotine in 1793, bringing a decisive end to the monarchy in France. 

What happens in France on July 14?  

France’s fête nationale today is celebrated with a range of events throughout the day. Most of the major televised celebrations take place in Paris but towns and cities across France also organise a variety of local celebrations.   

10am local time: The Military Parade  

A key part of the celebrations is France’s military parade (défilé militaire), which became part of official celebrations by decree when July 14 was introduced as a national holiday in 1880.  

The event sees thousands of military personnel and police, hundreds of horses and almost 500 vehicles promenade down Paris’s Champs-Élysées avenue from the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la Concorde. Dozens of aircraft also perform a military flyover of the capital while trailing the blue, white and red (in that order) colours of the French flag.    


AFP | Sunday marks the centenary of France’s traditional Bastille Day military parade.


The current president of the French Republic attends the parade along with high-ranking politicians and often a foreign head of state as a guest of honour. Members of the public can tune in live on TV or attend in person by occupying one of the many spectator stands lining the avenue.  

As well as showing off France’s military prowessthe event is an occasion to honour certain people and causes, and to bolster diplomatic ties. Troops from other nations are often invited to join the parade as a gesture of friendship and alliance, or to mark historic occasions.     

To commemorate 100 years since the US joined allies fighting in World War I, US troops participated in the parade in 2017. French President Emmanuel Macron invited former US president Donald Trump as a guest of honour that same year. Trump was reportedly so impressed by the parade that he ordered the Pentagon to produce a similar event in America 

The parade was dramatically scaled down in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic. The following year, French healthcare workers were invited to participate to honour their hard work throughout the crisis.  

Troops from nine Eastern European countries opened the parade in 2022 as a sign of solidarity with Ukraine, where Russia had launched a full-scale invasion the previous February.  

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the 2023 parade as Macron’s guest of honour. A contingent from the Indian armed forces will also join parading troops.    

Pupils from the Ecole Polytechnique (Special military school of Polytechnique) take part in the Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris, on July 14, 2019.
Pupils from the Ecole Polytechnique (Special military school of Polytechnique) take part in the Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris, on July 14, 2019. © Lionel Bonaventure, AFP


Televised speech from the president de la République 

President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing introduced the custom of the French head of state giving a July 14 televised address in the 1970s. The event became a political tradition, similar to the annual televised presidential speech given from the Élysée Palace on December 31.  

The tradition died out somewhat under president Nicolas Sarkozy, who did not give the traditional Bastille Day address throughout his five-year tenure.  

Since becoming president in 2017, Macron has given two televised interviews on the July 14 holiday, in 2020 and 2022. There are no plans for an interview in 2023.  

9pm: Concert on the Champs de Mars  

A relatively recent tradition is the classical music Concert de Paris, which takes place at the park under the Eiffel Tower, known as the Champs de Mars 

The two-hour concert will be held for the 11th consecutive year in 2023, performed, as usual, by the French National Orchestra, with the choir and the choir school of Radio France.  

This year will also feature special performances by opera singers Ermonela Jaho, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Jonas Kaufmann and Ludovic Tézier, and violinist Vilde Frang. 

The concert is televised and spectators can also watch for free in-person from the Champs-de-Mars park in front of the tower.   

Traditionally, the concert ends with a rousing version of French national anthem La Marseilleise – originally a call to arms for soldiers fighting in the French Revolution – right before the famous Eiffel Tower firework display begins.  

Fireworks explode above the Eiffel Tower in Paris on July 14, 2020
Fireworks explode above the Eiffel Tower in Paris on July 14, 2020 © Zakaria Abdelkafi, AFP

11pm: Fireworks 

Perhaps the most famous image of France’s July 14 celebrations is that of fireworks lighting up the night sky around the Eiffel Tower. 

The 30-minute display begins, directly after the Concert de Paris, with fireworks set to contemporary music. In recent years illuminated drones have also been included.  The theme of the display for 2023 is “Freedom”. 

The event is televised and spectators can watch for free from the Champs-de-Mars, if there is any space available  crowds are notoriously vast. For those lucky enough to live in a tall building or near a hill, the spectacular display is also visible from various points around the capital. 


The Firemen’s Ball  

The Bal des pompiers is not an official part of July 14 celebrations, but is an institution nonetheless.   

On the evenings of July 13 and 14, fire stations around France throw open their doors and hold public parties, often with music and a bar either in the fire station or the station courtyard.  

The tradition is said to have begun in the Paris district of Montmartre in 1937, when firefighters returning from taking part in the military parade were followed by jubilant citizens. Amid the celebratory atmosphere, the firefighters opened the fire station doors and allowed the city’s residents inside.  

Banned during World War II, the parties were reintroduced after France’s liberation and have remained a fixture of the fête nationale ever since. 

This video from 2022 declares the ‘Bal des pompiers is back’

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