Fireworks behind the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day

Bastille Day in French: Learn the Language, History and Traditions of the French National Holiday

“Allons, enfants de la Patrie: le jour de gloire est arrivé!” “Let’s go, children of the fatherland: the day of glory has arrived!”

You’ve probably heard these famous lyrics fromLa Marseillaise, France’s national anthem, which is sung for Bastille Day celebrations.

The revolutionary spirit of the song is perfect for this national holiday, which was born out of one of history’s most turbulent periods: the French Revolution.

If you want to join in on the Bastille Day celebrations, I’ve put together a guide to understanding what the holiday is, how to celebrate it and most importantly, how to talk about Bastille Day in French!

Contents

Names for Bastille Day in French

You’ll notice that there’s no French translation listed below for “Bastille Day.” That’s because the French don’t call it Bastille Day! English-speaking countries are the ones who adopted the term, so you shouldn’t use it when speaking in French.

Instead, you can say:

VocabularyMeaningNotes
La fête nationale française  The French national holidayYou can also just shorten the phrase and refer to the holiday as la fête nationale  (the national holiday) or even abbreviate the latter to fête nat  if you're speaking informally with friends.

Note that this holiday isn't usually capitalized in French.
Le quatorze juillet July 14thThis is a great time to remind yourself that unlike in English, French months aren't capitalized.
La fête du quatorze juillet The July 14th holiday

Bastille Day Greetings

VocabularyMeaningNotes
Bonne fête nationale! Happy national holiday!
Joyeux quatorze juillet! Happy July 14th!Note that when talking about holidays or birthdays such as in these instances, bonne (good) and joyeux (joyous) both roughly translate to "happy."

Historical Bastille Day Vocabulary

VocabularyMeaningNotes
La révolution The revolutionTo refer to the French Revolution, simply say La Révolution Française.
La guerre The war
La victoire Victory
Le gouvernement The government
La monarchie The monarchy
Le roi The king
La reine The queen
La prison The prison
Les rebelles The rebels
L'émeute A riotTo talk about the action of rioting, you can say manifester violemment  (to protest violently).
La rébellion The rebellionYou can also use la sédition,  which means the same thing.
L'histoire History

Bastille Day fireworks from a French village.

Vocabulary for Celebrating Like a Local

VocabularyMeaningNotes
Vive la France! Long live France!
Qu'est-ce que tu vas faire pour célébrer le 14 juillet? What are you doing to celebrate July 14th?
Un drapeau Flag
feux d'artifice FireworksIt's worth noting that this phrase literally means "artificial fires," which is just one of the many examples of why French is so beautiful!
Le bouquet final The grand finaleThe phrase literally translates to "the final bouquet."
Un concert A concert
Célébrer To celebrateBoth fêter and faire la fête (literally, "to make a party") also mean "to celebrate."
Une fête A partyDepending on the context, fête can either mean "a holiday" or "a party.

Bastille Day parade in Paris.

Vocabulary for the Parade

VocabularyMeaningNotes
La parade  The paradeYou can also say le défilé,  which means the same thing but is used more commonly when talking about a parade with soldiers.

For example, you can say le défilé militaire  (the military parade).
Regardons la parade aujourd'hui! Let's watch the parade today!
Défiler To march
Les chars Parade floats
La musique Music
La foule The crowd
Acclamer To cheerBoth applaudir  (to applaud) and encourager  (to encourage) can usually be used interchangeably with acclamer.
L'armée The military
La police The police
Les pompiers Firemen
Le discours A speechYou can also use l'allocution,  which essentially means the same thing.
Le président The presidentUsually, the French President gives a speech during the July 14th celebrations.
Les ballons Balloons
Les confettis Confetti

Vocabulary for the Holiday Picnic

VocabularyMeaning
Un pique-nique A picnic
On va faire un pique-nique pour célébrer la fête nationale. Est-ce que tu voudrais nous accompanger?  We're having a picnic to celebrate the national holiday. Do you want to come with us?
Les amis Friends
La famille Family
La nourriture Food
Le repas Meal
La boisson Drink
Un panier A basket
Une couverture A blanket
Dehors Outside
Manger To eat
Boire To drink

Learn French with Bastille Day Activities

Bastille Day is a great way to have some fun while brushing up on your French!

For starters, you can practice your reading skills by checking out some French-language articles about the history of Bastille Day in French, like this short article.

If you’re an upper-level French learner, try this more extensive historical article on L’Internaute.

For audio-visual learners, here’s a very informative French video about Bastille Day by Pratiks:

If you really want to embrace Bastille Day, you could learn the French national anthem by listening to the song and memorizing the lyrics, which might surprise you—they’re quite graphic!

You could even go all-out by throwing a Bastille Day party with your friends! You can cook French food, fly the French flag and speak in French during the celebration.

What Is Bastille Day and Why Is It Important?

Bastille Day honors the Fête de la Federation (Festival of the Federation), which occurred on July 14, 1790, exactly one year after the Bastille prison in Paris was stormed by unhappy citizens.

The storming of the Bastille was one of the major events that began open rebellion in France in the summer of 1789, and it triggered the French Revolution.

Interestingly, the Bastille only held seven prisoners on the day it was stormed. and the act was a symbol of ending the power of the monarchy—since the prison was often used to hold those who opposed the royals. Perhaps even more importantly, the rebels needed to seize the large amount of gunpowder and cannons housed inside.

In the end, the leaders of the rebellion decided to demolish the prison to show that the monarchy’s hold over France was finished. Pieces of the Bastille were eventually sold as souvenirs, and the Marquis de Lafayette actually gave the prison’s key to George Washington as a gift. You can even see it on display today at Mount Vernon in New York State.

This important historical day was commemorated a year later with the Fête de la Federation, although with an effort to focus on unity as opposed to the bloodshed of the rebellion. A century later, July 14th became the French national holiday that’s celebrated today as Bastille Day.

If you’re interested in learning more about the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution, Jacobin Magazine and Origins both have very detailed articles on the subject.

Bastille Day at Arc de Triomphe

How French People Celebrate Bastille Day

People in France have found many ways to celebrate this commemorative day. For starters, Bastille Day is a French national holiday, so most people have the day off work, shops and businesses are closed and there’s generally a relaxed, holiday feel to the day.

Many people attend parades, the biggest being the famous annual military parade in Paris.

Others spend the day with family, having picnics, going to restaurants and hosting parties.

There are also often special discounts or free access to certain national museums, events and other historical sites on Bastille Day.

Finally, and perhaps most popular of all, is to go out at night, attend concerts and watch fireworks. The biggest celebration is a classical concert by the Eiffel Tower leading up to fantastic fireworks show above the iconic monument:

 

With all the excitement from reading about Bastille Day, you may have decided you want to learn the language. If so, consider checking out FluentU. This innovative language learning program uses authentic videos with embedded subtitles to help people learn French while watching entertaining videos, such as music videos, movie trailers and news clips—in other words, you learn while watching videos that you’re probably already watching anyway!

 

Now that you’re all set to celebrate one of the biggest French holidays, I wish you a joyeux 14 juillet (happy July 14th)!

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