France celebrates its national holiday in style

France celebrates its national holiday in style

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

The flash, boom and whistle of fireworks, precision aerobatics demonstrations and copious displays of red, white and blue: did someone push the rewind button and bring us back to the 4th of July? Au contraire, we’ve fast-forwarded 10 days and sidestepped to France, another land where people aren’t shy about celebrating their beloved national holiday. The degree of pomp and circumstance observed on this day even managed to bowl over the president of the U.S.A. when he witnessed it first-hand back in 2017.

The holiday’s historical reference is the storming of the Bastille, a military fortress, armory and prison in Paris, on July 14, 1789. The violent uprising came against the backdrop of a nationwide famine brought on by crop failures, widespread unemployment, and fierce anger at the callousness of the French monarchy, particularly King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette.

Frustrated by their lack of representation in government against the all-powerful clergy and nobility, commoners declared themselves to be a new body called the National Assembly, their goal to pen a French constitution. After some nobles and clergymen crossed over to their side, the king reluctantly consented to this new development. But when he dismissed his popular, reform-minded minister, crowds poured into the city streets, burning down customs posts and seizing weapons including muskets and cannons. The gunpowder stored in the Bastille became the rioters’ next goal. As a growing mob surrounded the fortress, a few delegates were invited inside to negotiate. As the talks dragged on, the restless masses attempted to breach the fortress. Soldiers defending the Bastille were ordered to shoot, and some 100 attackers were killed and dozens wounded. The tides turned later that day, when the French Guards, a group sympathetic to the revolutionaries, joined forces with them. Despite the surrender of the governor of the Bastille, Bernard de Launay, he was taken prisoner by the crowd, beheaded and his head displayed on a pike as it was paraded through the city streets. The gruesome events of the day foreshadowed the bloodshed that was to come with the French Revolution.

Nowadays, la Fête Nationale is celebrated nationwide with community gatherings, open-air concerts and brilliant displays of fireworks. France’s flag, the red, white and blue Tricolore, waves proudly in the air, and strains of the national anthem, La Marseillaise, ring out. Dancing is also an important festivity, with festive balls held at local fire stations.

Although celebrations take over tiny villages and huge metropolises throughout the land, there’s arguably no better place to be than Paris on the day. Huge crowds gather to watch a military parade as it makes its way down Champs-Elysées in Paris, past the President of the Republic, high-ranking government officials and world leaders.

Other traditional activities include taking a boat ride along the Seine, watching the aerial acrobatics of the Patrouille de France, picnicking in public spaces and whiling away the hours in the company of friends until the evening falls when it’s time to stake out a prime viewpoint for one of the most compelling displays of fireworks to take place anywhere and at any time.

The wrought-iron lattice structure of the Eiffel Tower serves as the scaffolding for the pyrotechnics strung along its length and width. Below decks on the Champ de Mars, not far from the base of the tower itself, the National Orchestra of France launches into rousing renditions of classical music from 9 p.m. Finally, around 11 p.m., flame is put to wick and the show begins. And what a spectacle it is! For half an hour, the night comes alive with sound and fury. From Montmartre to Montparnasse and bridges crisscrossing the Seine, hundreds of thousands of pairs of eyes stare transfixed at the tower and skies above.

You don’t have to be French to appreciate the marvel that is Bastille Day. With the military parade already canceled in 2020 – the first time it’s been called off since the end of World War II –, along with the exact shape in which this year’s festivities will unfold remaining in doubt right up until the last minute, this is surely not the best of times to be there in the flesh. But if you’re still in Europe come 2021, you may want to witness this sight for yourself. Bonne Fête Nationale, French friends!

TIP: In this year of virtual experiences, why not pop the cork on a nicely chilled bottle of champagne and tune in to watch the festivities from the comfort of your living room? France bleu will be broadcasting live on the night of July 14.

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