Bastille Day is celebrated in France as the national holiday, commemorating the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789. It is formally known as the Fête nationale, but more commonly referred to as le 14 Juillet.
In many towns and villages across France, Bastille Day celebrations start the night before with night markets, fireworks and often le bal de pompiers (Bastille Day Firefighters’ Ball), a fundraising dance with buffet hosted by local fire brigades in their fire stations. They were considered opportunities for young women from good families to meet husbands.
Distributing food to the poor is also a tradition associated with Bastille Day, followed by a Te Deum sung in the local church to give thanks.
In many communities, a military review would be held on Bastille Day. Soldiers, National Guard, firefighters and police would parade to mark the occasion. Paris still has a huge annual parade and flypast down the Champs-Élysées, attended by the French president and foreign guests.
The storming of the Bastille in Paris is considered the start of the French Revolution. On 14 July 1789 the largely empty prison in a small medieval castle in the centre of Paris was captured by the mob and a handful of elderly prisoners freed – much against their will.
The reason for storming the Bastille was not to free the prisoners, but to capture the ammunition stored in it.
It was the beginning of the end for the French monarchy. But things did not escalate quickly. Initially, the King agreed to demands for reform and agreed to a liberal constitutional monarchy.
It was only once the King reneged on his promises that the real bloodshed started. As well as the King and Queen, many lost their head on the scaffolds in front of enthusiastic or merely curious crowds.
The executions were not limited to nobility, but also included people accused of hiding food and others considered criminals.
Does Bastille Day therefore celebrate genocide? It is a debate that has reared its head over and over during the past two centuries. The short answer is ‘no’.
The day celebrates the French republic and national pride in the principles of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Liberté, égalité, fraternité).
It also commemorates the Fête de la Fédération that celebrated the unity of the French people on 14 July 1790. This was a festival of events throughout France to celebrate the success of the French Revolution.
You may be surprised to learn, however, that this festival took place before the start of the bloodshed and even included a role for King Louis XVI as the citizen king of a reformed liberal constitutional monarchy.
At a local level, Bastille Day is often marked with a community gathering for a minute of silent reflection on these values.
In Pouzols-Minervois, for example, this event takes place in the Place du Monument and includes a short speech by the local mayor.
Because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, many local events have been scaled down again this year. In the region around Le Fort Pouzols-Minervois authorities have also cancelled fireworks displays over fears of wildfires. Several large wildfires have hit the region in recent weeks.