Lesson ideas and activities to introduce learners to the history behind the French national holiday
Celebrated each year on 14 July, Bastille Day, known more formally as la Fête Nationale, commemorates the storming of the Bastille. This was one of the most important events in the French Revolution and ultimately led to the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
As such, we’ve hand-picked a selection of our favourite Bastille Day-inspired resources to help you to examine its significance with your pupils.
Bonjour! Je m’appelle Delphine. Je suis française.
J’ai douze ans. Voici ma page de la Fête Nationale de la France.
C’est une date très importante. Pourquoi? Lisons……
One of the most important dates in France is the 14th July. In French, this date is le quatorze juillet or la Fête Nationale Française. In English, it is called Bastille Day.
Why is it called Bastille Day? Well, a long time ago, there was a prison in Paris called Bastille Saint-Antoine.
Every year, on le 14 juillet (the 14th July) France celebrates the moment when the unhappy people of Paris broke into the prison and set the prisoners free.
This historic event is called ‘the storming of the Bastille’ and in French it is known as la prise de la Bastille.
It happened on 14 July, 1789. It was the beginning of what became known as The French Revolution, or in French:- la Révolution française.
On that day, the unhappy people of Paris invaded the building and released the prisoners. Then, they seized the weapons stored inside the prison.
This painting is by Jean-Pierre Houël, 1789. It can be seen in la Bibliothèque de France.
It portrays the storming of the Bastille prison.
The Bastille was a symbol of oppression and injustice. By destroying it, the people felt that they were destroying the unfair rules that they hated so much.
In fact, after the storming of the Bastille, people made bracelets and brooches from the old stones of the fallen prison! They also wore buckles and hats in the shape of the towers of the destroyed Bastille. These fashions were known as à la Bastille and by wearing them the people were declaring that they had found freedom and justice.
People began to wear the blue, white and red colours of the tricolour flag (le drapeau tricolore).
Why were the people so unhappy?
The people of Paris hated the Bastille because they believed that too often the prisoners had not been given a fair trial.
It seemed that the rich people had all the power and could do anything they liked. They didn’t even pay any tax! But the poor people did have to pay tax! It just wasn’t fair!
AND….the poor people were suffering from hunger. There wasn’t enough food to go around but the royal family and their friends were all having a luxurious life, eating too much and spending vast amounts of money on clothes, jewels and everything that they wanted.
Ça va très bien!
The people of Paris decided that things had to change. They were going to teach the greedy and selfish rich people a lesson! Some equality was needed!
At the moment when the prison was invaded, the protesters looked very scary and fierce. They shouted, waving the tools that they would normally use at work, for example, spades and forks.
Nous avons faim! Nous ne sommes pas contents!
What happened next?
The ordinary people were now in charge! Eventually, the royal family and their supporters were arrested because they did not seem to care about the poor people’s hunger.
Ça va très mal!
The monarchy was abolished. Anyone who was a friend or supporter of the royal family was called ‘an enemy of the French people’ – un ennemi du peuple – and they would be sentenced to imprisonment or capital punishment. The place where capital punishment took place was the largest public square in Paris called la Place de la Concorde but during the French Revolution, it was named la Place de la Révolution.
During the French Revolution, the King of France was Louis XVI. The queen was Marie-Antoinette and she was Austrian. She was only fourteen years old when she married Louis.
In the portrait below, painted by Martin Van Meytins, she is just twelve years old.
Delphine’s opinion:- “I think that twelve-year-olds look quite different nowadays.”
At first, it must have been very difficult for Marie-Antoinette to leave her family behind in Austria. She was just a young teenager who had to live in a foreign country with her new husband and people who were complete strangers.
They lived in the magnificent palace of Versailles. In French this palace is called le Château de Versailles.
At the time of the storming of the Bastille, Marie-Antoinette was thirty-four years old and her two surviving children were the heirs to the French throne. There had been two more children but sadly they had both died – one whilst a baby and another in childhood.
Below is a portrait of Marie Antoinette with three of her children and an empty cradle to show that the baby has died.
This painting is by Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun, 1787.
It is kept at the Palace of Versailles.
Why does France celebrate the storming of the Bastille?
Every year on the 14th July, France remembers the brave people who fought for freedom and justice for everybody in French society. As a result, the monarchy with their old way of doing things (known as l’Ancien Régime – the Old Régime) was abolished and everybody was given equal importance and rights. That is why the motto of France is Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood).
The figure in the image above is called Marianne. She is the French symbol of liberty.
A message from Delphine: “Because I am a girl, I really like Marianne. She is my favourite French symbol. À mon avis, les filles sont magnifiques!
How do French people celebrate Bastille Day?
The first Bastille Day celebrations took place on 14 July, 1790. It was exactly one year after the storming of the Bastille. This first celebration was organised on the ground where the Eiffel Tower now stands – an area of land called Champ-de-Mars.
In the photo below, you can see people dancing in a Paris street to celebrate Bastille Day. The dance is called un bal populaire. This photo was taken on 14 July, 1912.
Nowadays, every year on 14th July, there are big parades in Paris, especially on the famous road called l’Avenue des Champs-Elysées. The French word for ‘the parade’ is le défilé.
The French flag flies everywhere and there are celebrations and fireworks all over France. The President of France holds a garden party at his residence in Paris. This residence is called le Palais de l’Élysée.
People take the day off work because it is an official holiday. It is a great time for children and families!
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bastille Day, the Eiffel Tower (la Tour Eiffel) was built on the ground of the very first Bastille day celebrations.
It was officially opened in 1889.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day, a big glass pyramid was built outside the Louvre Museum (le Musée du Louvre) in 1989.
This pyramid is called la Pyramide du Louvre.
And what will be built in 2089 to celebrate the 300th anniversary?
Delphine says:- “I wish I had a time machine to travel into the future! J’aimerais voyager dans le temps!”
Delphine’s Notebook of Interesting Facts
1. There were only seven prisoners inside the Bastille when the people broke in.
2. During the French Revolution, the traditional kings’ cake eaten in France on 6 January was not allowed to be called by that name. ‘King’ was not a popular word at that time. Instead of being called la galette des Rois (as it is still known today) it was temporarily renamed le gâteau de l’égalité, meaning ‘the equality cake.’
3. Only some stones exist from the Bastille prison. The area where the prison used to stand is now a square called la Place de la Bastille. In the middle of the square there is a column called ‘The July Column’ – la Colonne de Juillet. There is also a train station called Bastille and it belongs to the Paris underground network of railway lines – le Métro de Paris.
4. Bastille Day takes place during the famous French cycling race called le Tour de France. On the 14 July, the French cyclists always ride extra fast to score points for their team on such an important day!