Allons, enfants de la Patrie, (Let’s go, children of the fatherland,)
Le jour de gloire est arrivé! (The day of glory has arrived!)
You’ve probably heard these famous words from “La Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem, sung for Bastille Day celebrations. In fact, Bastille Day is talked about, televised and celebrated all over the world each July 14th.
The revolutionary spirit of the song is perfect for this national holiday, which was born out of one of history’s most important periods: the French Revolution.
In case you’ve been wanting to join in on the Bastille Day fun but need a little help, I’ve put together a guide to understanding what the holiday is, how you can celebrate it and most importantly, how to talk about it in French!
What Is Bastille Day and Why Is It Important?
Bastille Day is in part a reminder of the Fête de la Federation (Festival of the Federation) on July 14, 1790, which took place 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 signaled that the French Revolution was officially underway.
Some critical details about this point in French history aren’t often discussed, such as the fact that the Bastille only held seven prisoners on the day it was stormed. Rather than merely setting citizens free, the act was symbolic 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!
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 14 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 Ohio State University have both published wonderfully detailed articles on the subject.
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. Out the Box, a French site specializing in cultural news, has a great shorter article for lower-level learners.
If you’re an upper-level French learner, try this more extensive historical article on L’Internaute, a French news site that focuses on education, politics and cultural topics.
For visual and auditory learners, there’s a very informative French video about Bastille Day by Pratiks, a French organization that makes how-to and informational videos.
FluentU is a fun tool for all types of learners to experience Bastille Day like the French do, without a plane ticket. FluentU provides authentic French videos, like interviews and news clips, movie trailers, music videos and more, that’ve been transformed into language learning experiences.
Each video comes with interactive captions, flashcards, exercises and more to make real French videos accessible no matter your comprehension level. Click on any unfamiliar word for an instant definition, visual learning aid and native pronunciation. This way, you can actively build your skills while absorbing French the way native speakers really use it. And it’s totally personalized based on your own learning gaps—everyone has a unique experience, even if they’re watching the same videos!
The videos are organized by genre and learning level, so it’s easy to find ones that work for you. Check out this video about Bastille Day and the Tour de France. Then, you can explore the full video library for free with a FluentU trial.
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.
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.
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, listen to concerts and watch fireworks. The biggest celebration is a classical concert by the Eiffel Tower leading up to fantastic fireworks exploding high above the iconic monument.
All the French Bastille Day Language You Need for a Fun Fête Nat!
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…
La fête nationale française — the French national holiday
You 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 14th
This 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
Again, you’ll never say something like “Happy Bastille Day,” as it’s just not used in France.
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.”
La révolution — revolution
To 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 — king
La reine — queen
La prison — the prison
Les rebelles — rebels
L’émeute — a riot
To talk about the action of rioting, you can say manifester violemment (to protest violently).
La rébellion — rebellion
You can also use la sédition, which means the same thing.
L’histoire — history
Celebrating Like a Local
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
Les feux d’artifice — fireworks
It’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 finale
The phrase literally translates to “the final bouquet.”
Un concert — a concert
Célébrer — to celebrate
Both fêter and faire la fête (literally, “to make a party”) also mean “to celebrate.”
Une fête — a party
Depending on the context, une fête can either mean “a holiday” or “a party.”
At the Parade
La parade — the parade
You 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 cheer
Both 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 — speech
You can also use l’allocution, which essentially means the same thing.
Le président — president
Usually, the French President gives a speech during the July 14th celebrations.
Les ballons — balloons
Les confettis — confetti
Words for a Holiday Picnic
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
Now that you’re all set to celebrate one of the biggest French holidays, I wish you a very joyeux 14 juillet (happy July 14th)!
Camille Turner is an experienced freelance writer and ESL teacher.
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