The mother of all Bastille Day parades stretches on the morning of July 14 from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Élysées and up Rue Royale to the Place de la Madeleine on the Right Bank of Paris. For one day each year, the ultra-civilized French put down their forks and wine glasses and pretend they’re still a revolutionary and militaristic empire. All manner of fly-overs and land-based vehicles and marchers turn out in smart, singing formations.
The French parade is an outlier in that it celebrates a mob action and not an independence movement. On July 14, 1789, the Paris mob stormed the Bastille fortress in the faubourg Saint-Antoine, lynched and decapitated the Governor Bernard-René de Launay, and freed a grand total of seven prisoners—four forgers, two lunatics, and a sexual deviant (they also would have freed the pornographer the Marquis de Sade if he hadn’t been transferred elsewhere a few days earlier).
But revolutions thrive on symbols, and within days, the storming had become the defining event in a descent into utter political and social chaos. For a century afterwards, the incident and the day remained key focal points in the struggle between the Imperial/Monarchist and Republican/Socialist forces that repeatedly tore apart both France and its unruly capital city. Only in the late 20th Century did Bastille Day morph into the entertaining public holiday and excuse for celebration we know today.
That celebration is also remarkable for not having been swamped, like so many other European fetes, by the tourist trade. Around 9AM, as the largely French crowds start to thicken, movement and access gets restricted. But if you’re a tourist like us, all you have to do is forget your French and remember the name of a nearby hotel, and the police will let you wander anywhere. We shamelessly take full advantage.
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