Bastille Day. La Fête Nationale. Quatorze Juillet.
The 14th of July goes by many names in France. Whatever name you choose, it is a day of national pride and patriotism… and partying.
Originally called Fête de la Fédération, this day commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789 marking the beginning of the Revolution. The day also pays tribute to the official Declaration of Independence (in 1790), with its ideal that we are “born free and remain free and equal in rights.”
This year, with the theme “Paris is a Party,” you’ll find many ways to celebrate. Here are five not-to-be-missed events.
The day begins with a roar and a rattling of roofs. Jets from La Patrouille de France (a branch of the French Air Force) thunder down the corridor of the Seine leaving a trail of tricolor patriotism, reminiscent of a French Rapunzel letting down her blue, white, and red hair.
The streams of French color are followed by an air show of past and present military planes, giving us a lesson in history and a cogent reminder of the pervasiveness of war.
The bridges near the right bank offer a great view. Look for the first jets around 10:40 am. You will see them before you hear them (given that pesky sound barrier concept).
Thousands of spectators stack themselves along the Champs Élysées to see the military parade (the oldest in Europe), with gallantly uniformed members of elite units in synchronized step.
The marching troops are followed by military motor vehicles and then the units on horses. It’s a rich one-hour display of military power and political pride.
President Hollande arrives at Avenue de Friedland around 10 am to review the troops. The parade begins just after the flyover (at about 11 am) and ends with the amazing parachuters who fall backwards out of helicopters, give a thumbs up, swoop gracefully over the city, and land precisely in front of the review stand.
Because the parade route is so crowded, my favorite place is the Quai d’Orsay near the Assemblée National. Here, the troops are a little more “at ease” since, once they cross the Pont de la Concorde, the parade is technically finished.
Be aware that the metro stations along the Champs Élysées close in the morning before the parade starts as a part of the official crowd control process.
The Republican Guard
An “after parade” or mini-parade is always a treat, as the cavalry of the Republican Guard (Garde républicaine) comes clipclopping down the right bank, heading home from the Champs Élysées parade to the Quartier des Célestins.
The Firemen’s Ball
We all love our pompiers. We love them even more when they’re dancing bare-chested, waving their shirts over their heads at the Firemen’s Ball. Yes, some of these pompier parties get wild.
The Bals des Pompiers are modeled after the guinguettes of the 19th and 20th centuries, with dancing, eating, and drinking. Neighborhood fun at its finest. But be prepared to stand in line to get in. The Pompiers are popular.
(July 13 and 14 from 9 pm to 4 am at fire stations around the city and in the banlieue)
The Eiffel Tower/Champs-de-Mars Grand Finale
The show starts at 9:30 pm with a concert by the Orchestra National de France and the Choeur de Radio France. When darkness falls, the light show begins (around 11 pm).
The fireworks are artfully designed, appearing to be laced in and around the ironwork of the Eiffel Tower.
The sky explodes with shooting stars, cascading jewels, and fiery brushstrokes. After 30 minutes of shimmering bursts, the tower itself is lit with a thousand sparkles for the grand finale.
And we end the day with some understanding of what it means to be free.