Don’t Wish Your French Friends “Happy Bastille Day”

On July 14th, more than 50 cities in the United States will celebrate France’s national holiday, Bastille Day. But there’s no such thing as Bastille Day in France. Why not? Because in France, July 14th is simply known as la fête du 14-juillet (the July 14th holiday) or more officially, la fête nationale (the National Holiday).

Okay, okay. But like Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name?” A lot, actually.

France’s national holiday isn’t named after the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution because the holiday isn’t really about that event. Several different dates were considered in 1880 to serve as the national holiday, including August 4th, the day on which the feudal system was abolished. July 14th eventually won out because it was the day of la Fête de la Fédération, a joyous celebration in 1790 that honored the new government and commemorated the one year anniversary of the storming of the Bastille (a prison where Louis XVI jailed citizens for speaking out against the government). By the transitive property, la fête du 14-juillet does celebrate this bloody and symbolic victory during the French Revolution, but the holiday is mostly about national pride: the tricolor bleu-blanc-rouge flag, France’s national anthem La Marseillaise, and the values liberté, fraternité, and égalité are much more important to this holiday than the storming of the Bastille.

La fête du 14-juillet is celebrated in France with food, dancing, music, and of course, fireworks. By far the biggest tradition of this holiday celebrating national pride is an extravagant military parade that takes place in Paris each July 14th, which is both the largest and oldest (since 1880) regularly held military parade in Europe.

In America, however, Bastille Day is a completely different story. French expats and Americans alike from New Orleans to New York City celebrate Bastille Day with French music, dancing, cuisine, and games like pétanque (the French version of the ball game bocce/boules). Bastille Day in America is a chance for French-Americans to celebrate their French nationality and a chance for Americans to fill their bellies with crêpes.

So if American celebrations have more to do with French music and food than honoring French Republic or remembering the storming of the Bastille, why call it Bastille Day instead of, say, France’s National Holiday?

Because focusing on the storming of the Bastille makes France’s national holiday more of an “Independence Day.” With the exception of the UK and Denmark, most countries in the world have a national holiday that celebrates the country’s founding. Most of these countries have an Independence Day, since a huge part of the world was colonized by European powers between the 16th and 20th centuries. A smaller portion of the world—France included—celebrates “revolution days” commemorating a fairly recent and significant political change. The storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution embodies the same themes—freedom, democracy, the people vs. a tyrant—that are present in many other nations’ independence narratives.

So if you happen to run into any French natives this year during your July 14th celebrations, don’t wish them a “Happy Bastille Day”—chances are you’ll be met with the same reaction as if someone wished you a “Happy Declaration of Independence Day” on July 4th.

  • Thomas

    In Australia, les franco-australiens, say ‘Bastille Day’ because ‘Happy National Celebration Day’ just does not sound that great in English – but in french we say ‘fête nationale’ or ’14 juillet’ So I think it is completely fine to say ‘Bastille Day’ in English. It will be a little weird to say it in French though. So in short in English it is called ‘Bastille Day’ because that is how it has become known, regardless if technically correct or not. Anyway, know-it-alls are forever the party pooper.

  • Trista Baxter

    I think its fine to wish someone a “Happy Independence Day” or a “Happy July 4th”…I’m not going to “look at anyone funny” just because they said Independence Day…..not that big of a deal, to waste an entire article on this….and Thomas is right, my husband is a French expat, we live in the US, and in English we say “Bastille Day” and in French we say “fete nationale”….its just different words in different languages, not a literal translation, like many other things from Eng-French and French-Eng…..nbd!

  • Thomist

    I hope this article isn’t implying that King Louis XVI was a tyrant, because that would be an unfair and slanderous accusation against a good man.

    When the mob stormed that oh-so-terrible prison, they found exactly seven prisoners. One historian has referred to it as a “5-star prison”.

  • Alix

    There was no celebration of the new French
    Republic in 1790. The Republic wasn’t founded until 1792.

    Louis XVI didn’t use the royal imprisoning document known as the “lettre de cachet” overmuch, although future revolutionary Louis Antoine Saint-Just was confined to a Paris reformatory when he was not much more than a kid by request of his own mother, whose jewelry & silver he had stolen to get to Paris. His predecessors? A different story.

    Parisians attacked the Bastille in order to get powder for the weapons they had taken earlier from Les Invalides, a military hospital on the Left Bank (beside today’s Eiffel Tower). The cache of royal weapons was stored there, but not powder.

    When the Bastille’s warden, DeLauney, surrendered that medieval fortress, it held only seven prisoners, one of whom was not in his right mind; he shouted “Vive le roi!” as he was liberated.

    Yes, there was cannon fire, there were injuries and deaths, and the warden was summarily executed. But taking the Bastille didn’t create any sort of terrible bloodbath.

    Have you ever crossed the Paris bridge known today as “Le Pont de la Concorde”? Then you’ve trodden over quite a few Bastille stones. That bridge was under construction in 1789, and it was intended to be named in honor of Louis XV, whose equestrian statute stood in the square opposite that bridge on the Right Bank.

    After the events of July 14, 1789, The equestrian statue was pulled down and the bridge was built with Bastille stones so that “the People could forever walk on those stones.”

    Le 14 juillet of 1790 was a different story. It took a while to set things right again. Google it. Find out why Robespierre took up residence with the DuPlay family — & why Lafayette is a USA hero but a French scoundrel.

    Vive la France libre!

  • Alix

    I’m related to Louis & to Marie Antoinette. I’m also related to Camille Desmoulins, who actually roused Parisians “to arms” on Sunday, July 12, 1789.

    Louis was not a bad man. But he was most certainly a bad statesman. I fear he clung a bit too dearly to the old motto of “Dieu et mon droit.”

    Like another “leader” I can think of, Louis had a terrible tendency to cling to the notions of the last person he’d spoken to.

    I don’t believe he had any understanding of intellectual France –& especially Paris — at any time in his life.

    And though the events that became the revolution were put in motion by bourgeois French, the revolution herself was carried out by intellectuals.

  • Alix

    Well said. Merci.

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