Bastille Day (one day late)

This post is a day late, but I have been enjoying the festivities, so …


Bastille day (which the French call le Quatorze Juillet – because it is) is the day on which the French sit back and enjoy the fruits of their revolutionary tradition, mostly by sitting in the sun, holding BBQ, playing Pétanque and generally enjoying themselves with vast quantities of food and drink.

So, there is one downside to French public holidays – you always take them on the day they fall, which is great during the week, but today is Sunday and it is also the official Bastille Day holiday – no tagging on a Bank Holiday Monday like the Brits do.

Louis XVI’s diary entry for July 14th 1789

« Rien » (nothing), although the king did add that he hadn’t been hunting that day. It seems strange, as Parisians stormed the Bastille and unleashed those events that were to become the French Revolution, the king was having a quiet day at Versailles.

The majestic and opulent residence is situated only 20 kilometres from the centre of Paris, however in those pre-internet days, it took the best part of a day to get from Paris to Versailles.  The king was not informed of the events in Paris until the early hours of July 15th –

« Another revolt in Paris? » the king asked the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, who brought the news

« Non sire, ce n’est pas une révolte, c’est une révolution. » answered the duke.

I couldn’t be sure about the historical validity of this phrase, it’s like the famous reply from Marie Antoinette – when told that the peasants had no bread and were starving, she (supposedly) said « let them eat cake » –

Whatever the circumspection on historical statements – it is a well-documented and undeniable historical fact that on July 14th 1789, Parisians stormed the Bastille and thanks to that, every year since, July 14th has been a national holiday. – Right?

Actually that is very wrong. The idea of a Bastille Day holiday didn’t take root until the late 1870’s. The law that enshrined July 14th, as a national holiday wasn’t passed until July 6th 1880, just in time for the first Bastille Day on July 14th of the same year.

Prior to this, there had only been one Bastille Day celebration, the Fête de la Fédération on July 14th 1790. A vast public celebration of the storming of the Bastille, and, for all concerned, the official ending of the French revolution and the beginning of a new constitutional monarchy. History (however reliable) recalls that the royal family attended and that the king even wore he new red, white and blue republican symbol.

The French Revolution, 1789 to 1790. Imagine how different history lessons would be in school if the revolution had stopped there. Imagine how different history itself would have been. France might still be a constitutional monarchy. No Republic. No Napoleon, more important though, no 14th July holiday.

So, what happens on July 14th in France?

The day kicks off with a huge military parade down the Champs Elysées in Paris – Apart from China, Russia and North Korea, France is probably one of the few countries that still go in for military parades. The first Bastille Day parade was on the first Bastille Day in 1880. Yesterday just under 5000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, firemen, policemen and Gendarmes marched from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la  Concorde (formerly the site of the guillotine in revolutionary times) – a distance of exactly 880 metres, marched at the speed of 110 paces per minute – except for the Foreign Legion who march at 80 paces per minute. Following behind the troops come their vehicles – tanks, trucks, APCs, IFVs and such like. This year however there were 35% fewer vehicles than usual – a result of reductions in defence spending. The show on the Champs Elysées is completed by a display of aerial strength with a flypast from the French air force.

The parade is not at all a show of military force, it is all to celebrate the armed forces and the traditional « soldat – citoyen » link. Since the Revolution itself, until the abolition of national service in 1996, the majority of able-bodied French men served between 1 and 2 years in the armed forces. The 1789 « Jourdan Act » that introduced national service stated that … « “Any Frenchman is a soldier and owes himself to the defence of the nation”. Without national service, Napoleon could never have raised his massive armies.

The « soldier-citizen » idea is still present within the Republican mindset.

After the military parade, the President addresses the nation – in recent years, the traditional press conference has given way to an « informal » Q&A session between the President and a few handpicked journalists.

Of course, all this is televised, and most French people, though not glued to the tube, will certainly have the TV on, but they’re probably more concerned with preparing lunch.  Like all French public holidays, Bastille Day is an occasion to overdose on food and drink. This being the « official » start of summer (weather permitting) lunch is around the BBQ, and this being France, lunch will probably last all day.

Standard French BBQ fare … Pork chops, and sausages – chipolatas and the spicy North African Merguez sausage – all washed down with rivers of chilled Rosé wine.

(An aside on wine – thank heavens for the wine box. Three to five litres of chilled wine on tap.)

After a hefty lunch in the sun, come 4pm or 5pm, there are several options open to you.

  1. A game of pétanque – that popular French sport, much loved by Francophiles, whereby you throw large metallic balls across a strip of wasteland (the dustier and sandier the better) in an effort to get your metal projectiles as close as possible to a small wooden jack. Every Frenchman plays, or has played at Pétanque at least once in life – more than a sport, it is part of our national glue.
  2. Switch on the TV and watch the Tour De France. Traditionally, the Bastille Day stage is the longest and this is the day that French cycle fans pray for a French winner of the stage. Cycling, like Pétanque is one of those socio-cultural sports that binds the French.
  3. Have a nap
  4. Go for a walk
  5. Play cards
  6. Clear the lunch things always and then sit around the lunch table with a bottle of Brandy and set the world to rights. I may add that in this last option, there are many sorts of Brandy. Until 1992 it was totally legal for all private citizens to produce 20 litres of alcohol using the fruit from the trees in their own garden.  You would pick the fruit and then wait for the local Stillman to come round your area and brew your fruit into untaxed alcohol. In 1992, this « privilege was officially abolished. Down my way, we still have a local stillman and we still have a few « oldies » who are allowed to brew their own moonshine – guess what, come summer time, the few survivors who can still distil are all very popular.

So, come 8pm on July 14th ; you sit down for dinner, which is more or less finishing the leftovers from lunch and then come 11pm, you head into town for the traditional firework display and the « Bal Populaire. » – a giant, free dance cum disco organised by the local authorities (normally with a dance band) – couples dance, kids let off fireworks and everyone gets merry. As for the music you dance to – plenty of accordion bands knocking out inter-war French dance classics – and this is what really surprises me – the number of French youngsters who know their accordion music. Songs written and recorded even before their parents were born they know all the words and all the dance steps – Charles Trenet is alive and well on every Bastille Day.

And that is Bastille Day in France

I love Bastille Day, because we are all finally on holiday. The workaday France closes down and the “Douce France” of Charles Trenet becomes a reality for a few short weeks at least. We head for the beach, the mountains or the countryside, and we enjoy that most French of cultural traditions “la douceur de vivre.”

Final word on flags – The French are not a flag-waving nation. They don’t do “red white and blue” as the Brits or the Americans do, so, this is the one day of the year that you can wave the flag without being associated with the far right. Oh dear what a complicated lot the French are (but I love ‘em).