A while ago one of the teachers I worked with asked me how you translate the phrase “fête national.” We came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a precise translation, at least not in my American English. You could translate it as the national holiday, but the connotations don’t translate into American English. We celebrate July 4th because it is the birthday of our nation. It is a day devoted to patriotism, but even more so to beginnings. No matter how far we have strayed from our founders, every July we shake out the dusty remnants of what our nation was founded on. We remember the brave men who penned a document that changed everything, who signed their names to a paper that was both high treason, and a fresh beginning. Our nation celebrates a collective birthday.
But in France, like in many Old World countries, there isn’t a day where the nation began. Thus they choose a day from history, a day significant for the way that it encapsulates beliefs they still hold dear, a day that calls to memory patriotism and celebration. Bastille day, as we call it in America, commemorates the storming of the Bastille Prison, an event which symbolically began the original French Revolution. Since this initial uprising, there have been more revolutions and governments than I can count, including a brief return to the monarchy. But still, this date has become the fête national. It is not the birthday of a nation, but it is a moment where things changed, where the old order started to topple and make way for the liberté, egalité, fraternité that would become the national motto. It is a moment where the French people realized their own power.
Thus even though this date comes after half of France’s history as a powerful nation, I find it fitting. Their fête national commemorates revolution, a sentiment that I find deeply ingrained in the French psyche. For all the turmoil that their political uprisings have caused, I appreciate this passionate volatile people that is ready to take go on strike and take to the barricades at a moment’s notice.