What is Bastille Day? The French call it le quatorze juillet (the 14th of July) or la Fête Nat (short for Fête Nationale) for it is France’s National Day. However the term “Bastille Day” is not used by French speakers despite its significance as the date commemorating the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 marking the beginning of the French Revolution and the end of the Absolute Monarchy.
National Day is celebrated across la Métropole (mainland France) and all its overseas dependencies and territories by holding balls and fireworks displays. It’s a public holiday and it’s a joyous one. It’s fun. It comes at a time when everyone is feeling good as it’s summer (how decent of those revolutionaries not to have taken the Bastille in November), with most French starting their long summer holidays – it’s a time to relax and enjoy. One of the most enjoyable and typically French ways to celebrate is at a Fireman’s Ball, “Bal des Pompiers”, which take place all over France though most famously in Paris.
The origin of the Bal des Pompiers is not clear but what is sure is that it started in Paris. Initially they were a way for firemen and their families to relax and celebrate the public holiday within the confines of their stations. But on a certain 14th of July 1937 passers by in Montmartre (an area of Paris) liked what they heard and knocked on the door of the local fire station. They were welcomed in and the following year many other stations opened their doors to the public. Nowadays fire stations all over the country organise balls, either within their walls or in public squares. The tradition has spread to other public holidays too, particularly the 15th of August. Typically the music is traditional French guinguette style – small folk bands with an accordion – though more and more it’s becoming a DJ affair with chart-topping hits blasted out of a sound system. Whatever the style of music, it’s a festivity that cuts across age, class, race, military or civilian; everyone puts aside their differences and gets into the fun. It is a true fête populaire bringing together whole communities.
There’s a little known fact about firemen that may also have something to do with the origins of the ball; the Pompiers of Paris, considered the most glorious and brave of them all, are actually part of the Army (and the Pompiers from Marseille are in the Navy.) This may well be why the Bal des Pompiers is linked to the 14th of July as the other main part of National Day celebrations is the grand military parade that takes place on the Champs Elysées in Paris.
This show of military might, associated more commonly with former Soviet states, communist countries and dodgy dictatorships, is the prime event of the official state celebrations. Thousands of foot soldiers, mounted soldiers, armoured vehicles and planes parade down (and over) the “most beautiful avenue in the world” (as the French modestly call the Champs Elysées!) It is televised, watched across the nation and goes on for hours. And in 1993, my husband, JF took part during his hated military service. (Photo below).
Based in Trier, in Germany, his regiment, the 61st Artillery, transferred to Satory Military camp near Versailles a few days before the National Day. Then picture this; early on the 14th they drove the tanks up the motorway to Paris! Arriving at Avenue Marceau at 5 am they had a 6 hour wait surrounded by increasingly large crowds of tourists, mainly Japanese and mainly female (the lure of the man in uniform?) Standing army-style rigid & stock still, facing forward without the slightest of sideways glances they finally set off just as the heavens opened. As JF’s position was manning the gun (with firing pin removed!) on top of the tank he got soaked to the skin during the 20 odd minutes of the descent. For an apolitical pacifist like JF this was a truly ridiculous event but nearly 20 years later he’s still dining out on the story. There really aren’t many people who can say “I drove down the Champs Elysées in a tank”!
How long such a show of military power will continue in this day and age who knows. Abolishing it was part of the Green Party’s manifesto at this year’s Presidential elections, but it didn’t go down well and they didn’t do well and everyone else seems to enjoy it, so I imagine it’s pretty far off. As for what we’ll do to celebrate, my young boys will undoubtedly watch some of the parade on the telly, being at an age where all things military, guns and warfare hold endless fascination, but JF will not. We’ll celebrate at the Prom Party on the seafront in Nice. The famous “Promenade des Anglais” will be pedestrianised for the evening, there will be food stalls and street entertainers, and seven different bands are playing. Everyone mills about happily in large family groups. It’s gorgeous weather, hot with a light breeze and under the warm Mediterranean sky we’ll finish the evening with fireworks over the Bay of Angels.