Amuse-Bouche No. 25: Tous à la Bastille !

by Julia Frey (

Warning. You can wish someone Joyeux Noël, Joyeuse Saint-Valentin, or Joyeuses Pâques, but you don’t say “Happy Bastille Day” ...

Or Bastille Day at all. In France, the national holiday is called la Fête Nationale française (abbreviated Fête Nat. on calendars) or more simply le 14 Juillet. So, I asked Isabelle and Laurent, how come English speakers call it Bastille Day and the French DON’T? This apparently innocent question opened up a can of worms (which the French would call “un guêpier”—a hornet’s nest—or “un sac de noeuds”—a bag of knots). My friends had lots of theories on the matter. Although nobody seems to know who first used the expression in English, they both thought a reasonable explanation is that French and non-French alike recognize the taking of the Bastille as the beginning of the French Revolution, and a symbolic victory for “les droits de l’homme” (human rights).

On the other hand, the actual date, July 14, doesn’t mean much, especially when stacked with all the other French fêtes known only by their dates (1er Mai, 8 Mai, 11 Novembre etc.). Which leads me to an aside: the names of months generally are not capitalized in French, but if they refer to a “fête” (holiday), they are capitalized because they’re considered proper names. Fêtes named for saints are feminine even if the saint was male, because it’s “la fête de…,” thus la Saint-Valentin (Valentine’s Day). Most fêtes identified by their dates are laïques (lay, nonreligious), and commemorate solemn historic occasions (battles won, wars ending, etc.), whereas religious holidays usually have real names: Noël (Christmas), Pentecôte (Whitsunday), Pâques (Easter). Even though France is un état laïc (a country with separation of church and state), it’s striking that Noël, Pâques, la Pentecôte, l’Ascension, l’Assomption and la Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) are all national holidays. In fact the French have an amazing number of legal holidays, eleven in all, four of which usually fall in May, which explains why you can never get anything done in May.

Now back to what I was saying... La Fête Nat. is probably called “Bastille Day” in English because “Bastille” is a brief, concise and unambiguous reference to the storming of the prison of the Bastille in Paris on July 14,1789, by 954 men and one woman, armed with pikes and miscellaneous firearms, yelling “Tous à la Bastille !” (Everybody out of the pool).

The actual event was a little disappointing. After a short battle, the nonmilitary governor in charge of the fortress, by then mostly being used as a hospital, simply gave up. When the victors finally made their way down to the “dungeons,” which turned out to be spacious, almost luxurious, they discovered there were only seven prisoners left in the place. The others, including the Bastille’s most famous inmate, the Marquis de Sade, had been transferred somewhere else shortly before. Disappointed, the conquerors dragged an old suit of armor and a printing press out into the courtyard, to be displayed as instruments of torture. Late that afternoon, when it was discovered that the humiliated governor had tried to commit suicide, he was dragged through the streets and finally decapitated by a local butcher. His head and those of several dead soldiers were stuck on pikes and paraded around the neighborhood, setting the tone for the bloody executions that would follow.

Despite rumors to the contrary, the Bastille was not ripped stone by stone from its foundations by the angry crowd. A contractor named Palloy was hired to dismantle it. Most of the stones were recycled to build a bridge, the Pont de la Concorde. He made money on the side by selling rings set with chips of stone from the walls and patriotic medallions hammered out of the fortress’s iron chains.

So why did the populace attack the Bastille? Because the Bastille symbolized Royal tyranny. Ancien Régime (pre-Revolutionary) France was an absolute, at times despotic, monarchy, ruled en l’occurrence (in this case, i.e. at that time) by Louis XVI . The King could arbitrarily lock up anyone he wanted, whenever he wished, without any stated reason, by simply creating a “lettre de cachet.” These notorious letters were a particularly French phenomenon, thus the term is untranslatable, although cachet in this context means the royal seal. The most infamous lettres de cachet ordered the indefinite imprisonment or exile, without trial, of the individual named therein. The verb describing this behavior? Embastiller (to put into the Bastille), of course.

Even in Paris today, you frequently hear “Tous à la Bastille !” when there’s une manifestation populaire. Careful, warns Isabelle. Do not translate this as “a popular manifestation.” The noun would be “demonstration,” and it’s populaire in the sense of du peuple, i.e., a street protest by left-wing, usually working-class dissidents who feel their constitutional rights have been violated. Recently, this battle cry has been heard in support of “les sans-papiers” (the “without papers,” i.e., illegal immigrants) and at a general strike against attempts to raise the retirement age in France from 60 to 62. U.S. citizens are more grégaires (sheep-like, not gregarious), having accepted the advance from age 65 to the current 67.5 without so much as a murmur.

I was surprised to learn that officially, le 14 Juillet does NOT celebrate the 1789 storming of the Bastille. It commemorates la Fête de la Fédération, organized on the same day in 1790, one year later. That night, Paris, in the presence of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, partied on the Champ de Mars to celebrate the success of a peaceful revolution and the principle of a constitutional monarchy. Bad guess. The revolution continued, ever more violent, until Napoléon Bonaparte became Premier Consul nine years later in 1799. Nonetheless, the Fête de la Fédération was renamed la Fête Nationale française in 1880. Virtually everybody in France will tell you, though, that le 14 Juillet commemorates la prise de la Bastille (the capture of the Bastille). “On nous a bourré le mou avec ça dès l’école primaire,” says Laurent. Quoi ? Mou, it turns out, means the lungs of a butchered animal, and the expression bourrer le mou à quelqu’un means to feed someone false information, over a long period of time. But careful, cautions Laurent, it’s populaire to say the least, in the direction of vulgaire, since bourrer (to stuff ) has all the same connotations as in English (sexual, over-feeding, plus in French, to beat someone up and se bourrer, to get drunk). Mou (adj. soft) can be associated to la cervelle (the brains you eat, as opposed to le cerveau, the brain you think with).

In any case, like the rest of us, the French are always happy to have un jour chômé (a day off). Le bal du 14 Juillet (dancing in the streets) is often the night of July 13 instead of 14, because people may have to go to work early on the morning of July 15. Early on the morning of July 14, there’s a défilé militaire (parade), with soldiers marching to La Marseillaise, the French hymne national (national anthem). In Paris, the French Air Force loudly buzzes the Champs Elysées, spewing exhaust smoke tinted bleu-blanc-rouge (the colors of the French as well as the U.S. flag—the “blue, white, red” in France, the “red, white and blue” en Amérique). Before dark thousands of Parisiens arrive at the Champ de Mars in time to picnic on the grass and crane their necks past la Tour Eiffel to look at le feu d’artifice du 14 Juillet—the spectacular fireworks set off from the Trocadéro, across the Seine.

One final warning! The French are amused or shocked or both by the blatant chauvinisme (nationalism) of Americans, by the Stars and Stripes dangling from our houses. As my friends remind me, “on n’est pas si patriotes que ça” (We’re not as patriotic as you Americans). La Fête Nat. is just another vacation day. In short, you can wish someone Joyeux Noël, Joyeuse Saint-Valentin, Joyeuses Pâques, and so on, but you don’t wish people Happy Bastille Day, in either English or French. When it first came into existence in 1880, a few noble families, including that of the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, flatly refused to recognize the holiday. To them, it symbolized the decapitation of some of their favorite relatives. Even today, one or two Royalists are still waiting for the Monarchy to be restored.

©Julia Frey, 2010

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  • Thank you for the interesting essay.
  • This was very interesting. Thank you for sharing.
  • Hi, Julia,

    Thanks for the explanation! I asked around further and I found you were right. They don't usually say something like"Happy July 14th" because it seems that French people say nothing on that day for particular greeting purpose. If someone really wants to say something, "bon juillet 14" is acceptable but it's nothing more special than "bon appetit", "bon film", "bon match"... Any native wants to confirm?
  • Hi Xixi,

    Thank you for expressing your confusion. "Tous à la Bastille" is a phrase used in Paris by political dissidents, to suggest a protest march to the Place de la Bastille. It has nothing to do with the fête nationale française-- le 14 juillet.

    MY French friends tell me they don't usually say "Bon (Joyeux) Quatorze Juillet",or "Bonne Bastille." on le 14 juillet. Will some native speakers comment on this please? Neither Xixi nor I know what's really common... and I'd hate to be misinforming my readers!
  • Very useful and interesting article for the history! However, I asked my French friends around and they were all confused about "tous a la Bastille" :( Seems that people say "Bon (Joyeux" Quatorze Juillet", "Bonne Bastille"... I am really confused...
  • Merveilleuse! Merci! I am amazed to discover all of this fascinating information, so well written: thank you! :)
  • Very interesting! Thanks for this very informative composition, which will serve me well as la Fete Nationale Francaise approaches!
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