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“Bastille Day” Is About More Than the Bastille

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This post is authored by Nicolas Boring, a foreign law specialist covering French-speaking jurisdictions at the Law Library of Congress. Nicolas has previously blogged about a Report on Right of Huguenots to French Citizenship and The Library of the French National Assembly – Pic of the Week, among others.

July 14 is France’s national holiday. Often referred to as “Bastille Day” by English speakers, the holiday is generally called Fête nationale (“National Celebration”) or simply Fête du 14 juillet (“July 14 Celebration”) in French.

This date has been France’s official national holiday since 1880, when the Law of 6 July 1880 was adopted declaring that July 14 would be the day of an “annual national celebration.” This date not only commemorates the famous storming of the Bastille fortress by Parisian revolutionaries on July 14, 1789, but also the Fête de la Fédération (Federation Celebration) that took place exactly a year later, on July 14, 1790. The Fête de la Fédération was organized in part by the Marquis de Lafayette, who was then the commander of the Parisian National Guard, as a celebration of French national unity. It was a huge event: an estimated 250,000 people, from all social classes and backgrounds, came to watch thousands of National Guard militias from all over France parade on the large green space in Paris called the Champs-de-MarsKing Louis XVI swore to uphold the system of constitutional monarchy that had been in place since the previous year, and a public mass was celebrated by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who was then bishop of Autun and would go on to become one of France’s most famous statesmen. Similar celebrations took place in other cities throughout France.

During the parliamentary debates that preceded the adoption of the Law of 6 July 1880, the legislators explicitly stated that the date of July 14 memorialized the 1790 Fête de la Fédération as much as the 1789 storming of the Bastille. Indeed, it appears that while many wished to celebrate the taking of the Bastille, some legislators felt uneasy about celebrating such a violent event. Pairing that revolutionary event with the 1790 celebration was therefore a way to make that date a more palatable choice for some of the more conservative political factions of the day. As the rapporteur for the bill that eventually became the Law of 6 July 1880 remarked during the parliamentary debates, “this date [July 14, 1790], you cannot criticize it for having shed a drop of blood, for having sowed any degree of division in the country. It was the consecration of the unity of France.” The date of July 14 was therefore chosen because of its dual symbolism. The storming of the Bastille symbolizes the rise of the people against tyranny, and arguably the transition from monarchy to democracy (although it would take almost another century for democracy to decisively replace monarchy in France). At the same time, the Fête de la Fédération symbolizes the ideal of France as a nation, “the fraternal union of all parts of France and of all French citizens in liberty and equality,” in the words of senator Henri Martin, speaking in favor of the 1880 bill.

To call July 14 “Bastille Day” is not exactly a misnomer, especially considering that the original Fête de la Fédération took place on that date to commemorate the taking of the Bastille the previous year. Nonetheless, there is a reason why that day is generally not referred to as Fête de la Bastille in France – it is about much more than the storming of an old prison-fortress.

Travaux du Champ de Mars pour la federation du 14 Juillet 1790 / Prieur inv. & del. ; Berthault sculp. Printed 1804. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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