This month, like every year on the 14th of July, the French will celebrate their Fête Nationale or Bastille Day, as it is known in English-speaking countries. It commemorates the storming of a Paris royal fortress––the Bastille––on July 14, 1789, a date of great historical significance as it marks the transition from an absolute monarchy to a republican regime.

Today, the festivities include a traditional military parade down the Champs-Elysées Avenue in Paris, a meticulously planned event attended by the French President, the Premier and his Cabinet, members of the armed forces and foreign dignitaries. A different twist has been given to celebrations by President Chirac, who since his election has invited young people from all over France to attend the post-parade reception in the garden of the Elysée Palace. In the evening, dancing and fireworks displays are held in every town and village throughout the land. The day is also celebrated in French embassies and consulates all over the world with receptions and garden parties.

The Storming of the Bastille, A Watershed in French History

During the first 6 months of 1789, the people of France, faced with an overbearing regime, crushing taxes and successive poor harvests, were dreading food shortages and bankruptcies. Aware of the dangerous mood of the country, on July 11, King Louis XVI decided to hear the citizen's complaints and convened the Etats Généraux, a council composed only of the King’s vassals. The legislative body was immediately transformed into the Assemblée Nationale to include representatives of the people. To calm the unrest, the King dismissed his extremely unpopular Finance Minister, Jacques Necker (only to call him back to service five days later). However, Paris remained in a state of high agitation. On July 14, a crowd led by a certain Pierre Hulin, who was in charge of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s laundry, seized 28,000 guns and 20 canons from a royal armory and marched towards the Bastille, a gargantuan fortress erected in 1369 which was serving as jail. Rumors of an attack had been spreading since the previous week and that day 100 Bastille guards had left their duties out of fear. The mob thus easily marched into the fortress and, after a four-hour round of firing, captured and killed its Governor and soldiers. Casualties among the attackers were estimated at 100 men. The seven prisoners jailed at the time (four forgers, two mental patients and one aristocrat convicted of incest) were liberated and the besiegers marched towards City Hall, rioting and looting along the way.

In the months that followed, General de La Fayette (of American Revolutionary War fame) ordered the Bastille’s demolition and the building was razed to the ground. Today, stones from its foundation can still be seen in the subway station beneath the Place de la Bastille, while a model of the Bastille and a painting showing its demolition are part of the collection of the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris (

It is most interesting that two keys to the fortress made their way to Alexandria, VA. In March 1790, La Fayette presented the key to the west portal to George Washington, under whom he had served in the American Revolutionary War. The accompanying note explained: “Let me……present you with the main key of the fortress of despotism. It is a tribute which I owe, as a son to my adoptive father, as an aide-de-camp to my General, as a missionary of liberty to its patriarch.” After being displayed in the Presidential Mansion, the key now hangs in the hall of Mount Vernon. A smaller key is on display at the nearby George Washington Masonic National Memorial, also a present of La Fayette, an honorary member of that lodge.

A year later, the first anniversary of the insurrection was celebrated with great pomp but the commemoration was abandoned in subsequent years. In July 1880, the Parliament passed a law naming July 14 as the national holiday of the French Republic. From the outset, emphasis has been on the patriotic and military character of the event, a fact that was especially noticeable on Bastille Day in 1919 and again in 1945 when great victory celebrations and civic rejoicing were in order.

In 1989, the bicentennial of this pivotal event was marked by a gala nighttime parade attended by numerous foreign heads of state. A new opera house known as the Opéra Bastille was also inaugurated in the Bastille district of Paris. Its opening proved to be the springboard for a vibrant redevelopment of the area, which is now one of the trendiest sections of the French capital (

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

The fall of the Bastille definitely signaled the dawn of a new era and the launch of new aspirations and values that were outlined by 18th-century philosophers and authors such Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau. A month after the event, these principles were incorporated into a document that was voted into existence as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the founding text of the French Republic. The document includes a preamble and 17 articles that chart principles held to be inherent to the individual and the Nation. It spells out such “natural and indefeasible” rights as liberty, ownership, safety and the right to resist oppression. It also recognizes equality before the law and asserts the principle of the separation of powers.

Inspired by the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, the text is still at the very roots of French institutions and was explicitly referred to in the Constitutions of 1852, 1946 and 1958. During the 19th century, it influenced similar documents in several European and Latin American countries and, more recently, the European Convention on Human Rights signed in Rome in 1950.

The Marseillaise, A National Anthem Rife with Controversy

Contrary to its name, the French national anthem was not created in Marseilles but in Strasbourg. In 1792, the Mayor of that Alsatian city wanted a battle march for the soldier
s leaving for the front following the French declaration of war on Austria. Composed in one night, it is the work of Claude Rouget de Lisle, a 32-year old captain in the corps of engineers and an amateur musician. Named the “Battle Song of the Army of the Rhine”, it was immediately hailed as a triumph. From Strasbourg the hymn traveled south and was played at a patriotic banquet in Marseilles, where printed copies were given to the volunteers that were leaving to join the revolutionary forces in Paris. When the people of Paris witnessed the arrival of the southern fighters marching to its beat, they dubbed it “la Marseillaise”. The composition's fortunes rose and fell with the tempestuous events in France at the time: it quickly gained acceptance and was declared a national anthem on July 14, 1795. Ironically, Rouget de Lisle, himself a royalist, refused to take the oath of allegiance to the new Constitution and so was imprisoned and barely escaped the guillotine. His hometown of Lons-le-Saunier, in Eastern France( honored him with a statue designed by Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, and the opening of his birthplace as a museum. A few years later the anthem fell out of favor with Napoléon and King Louis XVIII, who banned it because of its revolutionary association. It was authorized again during the Revolution of 1830, when Hector Berlioz provided a new orchestration. Outlawed again by Napoléon III, it was reinstated in 1879 by the Third Republic, whose Ministry of War approved the “official version”, following the recommendations of a specially appointed commission.

In fact, the Marseillaise continues to provoke controversy. There has been considerable confusion on the authorship of the music since early editions were published anonymously. Today, only three of the seven original verses are sung, and even then, some people are offended by a text that demands citizens to “drench our fields with tainted blood” or labels the enemy as “ferocious soldiers… who slaughter our sons and wives”. In an era of political correctness, some French citizens want to soften the national anthem. In the wake of the opening ceremony of the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, when a very young girl in local dress sang a soaring Marseillaise a capella, committees were formed and alternate terms were proposed to muffle the glorification of bloodshed. But most of the French oppose any change, a fact that President Giscard d’Estaing had already found out in the 1970s when he ordered a slower tempo Marseillaise. In 1979, the late singer and composer Serge Gainsbourg released “Aux Armes Etcetera”, which parodied the Marseillaise’s jingoistic overtones to a reggae beat. The outcry that followed included calling Gainsbourg a “walking pollution” and he was forced to sing it without musicians. In 1981, when the original manuscript came to auction, Gainsbourg made the highest bid to purchase the anthem.

The French National Flag, Three Colors that Unite

It might be said that the flag of France began life as an advertising statement: in the early days of the Revolution, militias adopted a two-color rallying cockade of blue and red, the traditional colors of Paris. In July 1789, La Fayette ordered the addition of the white, the color of the French royalty, thus giving birth to the “tricolor” flag, which King Louis XVI was ordered to fly three days after the fall of the Bastille. A February 1794 law established it as the national flag, with the stipulation that the blue should be positioned nearest to the mast.

Except during the Restoration era when Louis XVIII briefly regained the throne, it has been the emblem of France ever since. The Constitutions of 1946 an 1958 (Article II) confirm the “blue, white and red” as the French national flag.

Versailles, Capital of France for Over a Century

First erected as a hunting lodge by King Louis XIII, the Palace of Versailles and its magnificent gardens were built by his son, King Louis XIV. Architects Le Vau and then Mansart built the château, using Lebrun for the paintings and decorations and Le Nôtre for the gardens in the 2,500-acre park. In fact, Le Nôtre did not stop at designing the gardens and fountains; he also drew up plans for the surrounding town, located 15 miles from Paris.

In 1682, the Court settled in Versailles, making it the seat of government and the capital of France.

It was in Versailles that King Louis XVI, upon learning of the fall of the Bastille, was reported to have asked an aide: ”Is this a revolt?” The reply: “No, Sire, it is a revolution”, forecast the revolutionaries' next move: they marched to Versailles and took the royal family with them back to Paris. Most of the palace’s furnishings were auctioned off during the Revolution, and the royal city was briefly renamed “Berceau de la Liberté” (Cradle of Liberty).

In 1837, to save the buildings from falling into a state of disrepair, Versailles was made into a history museum “to all the Glories of France." In the 20th century, considerable efforts have been made to restore it to its former grandeur, thanks in part to the generosity of American patrons such as the Rockefeller family and Barbara Hutton. In 1979, Versailles’ buildings and gardens were included in the newly created Register of Historic Monuments.

The city has given its name to two important treaties. In September 1783, the U.S., Great Britain, France and Spain signed the document that ended the American War of Independence. Over a century later, President Woodrow Wilson negotiated the conditions of “The Treaty of Peace between the Allied Powers and Germany” to end WW1. The ceremonial signing of the treaty took place in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace in June 1919.

Today, with 500 rooms open to the public (out of the original 1,300), the Versailles Palace is the third most visited site in France, after the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum. (

(Reported by Fanny leJemtel Hostie, a writer specializing in tourism and economic development issues in France and the United States.)