14th July, national celebration in France, what is really being celebrated?

14th July, national celebration in France, what is really being celebrated?

The 14th July is very often associated with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. It was indeed in the morning of that day that an angry crowd seized this prison-fortress and brought its destruction. However, it was a year later on 14th July 1790 that another event took place, the Festival of Federation. Besides being the first anniversary of the fall of the royal prerogative, this marked the national merging of the regional units of national guards, formed in each of the French provinces.

On that day, 14,000 troops assembled in Paris marched in front of King Louis XVI under the flag of their department, from the Bastille to the Champ-de-Mars. However, reconciliation and national unity proved to be short lived. The King was arrested two years later and condemned to death. For almost a century, the 14th July would be forgotten.

It was in 1880 that the 3rd Republic sought to unite around republican symbols, on the values of peace and fraternity. The Marseillaise became the national anthem. A decree of 6th July 1880 established the military march which continues to this day. The City of Paris ordered from the Morice brothers the current statue of “la République”, which was unveiled 3 years later on the former “Place du Château d’eau”, renamed “Place de la République”.

                                

Bas reliefs du monument de la Place de la République à Paris
Left –  La prise de la Bastille (1789), Right – La Fête de la Fédération (1790)

Finally, the 14th July was proclaimed a national festival and public holiday, to allow the French to take part in the commemorations … and to listen to their president, Jules Ferry. But it was the 14th of July 1790 which was adopted as the focus of the commemoration and not that of 1789, which was considered too violent by certain members of parliament.

From this moment of crystallisation of national identity, over the years the celebrations were taken up in the suburbs of the capital decorated with triumphal arches, floral wreaths, flags and lanterns.

Théophile Steinlen (1859-1923), Le bal du 14 juillet,

The national festival extended gradually throughout France, in towns and villages. In 1945, in liberated France, it became much more of a popular celebration with the appearance in particular of fireworks and public parties.

Today, the military march in Paris remains a highlight. Sticking to a strict protocol, rehearsals take place only on tbe 12th, namely D-Day -2. Some 4,000 soldiers march on the Champs-Elysées at a beat of 120 steps per minute. The march is usually lined by units of the Foreign Legion, famous for their sizeable beards and their slower step. Throughout France, parties, dances and fireworks are organised every year on the 14th July or on the evening of tbe 13th.