What to do in July in Paris ? Here are our main French summer traditions.
Let us start with the 14th of July, our National Day, Fete Nationale in French.
So, what to expect on » le 14 Juillet » ?
Beforehand, let us check what happened on July 14th 1789 ? That day remains the first official outbreak of the French Revolution, symbolised by the Storming of the Bastille Prison Fortress by the Militia of Paris People. After that, weakened King Louis XVI, had no choice but to consent with a constitutional monarchy .
The « reconciliation of the people with the King » was celebrated all around France, on a new legal holiday called » Federation Day » , on July 14th 1790, but it was too late to reverse the Revolution process. King Louis XVI and his hated wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette ( daughter of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa) were still plotting to reverse the situation, supported by all the foreign monarchies ( the United Kingdom, Austria, etc) worried that such a people’s revolution would inspire other rebels in their own kingdoms.
On July 14th 1790, About 600.000 people gathered ( 80% from Paris) on the Champ de Mars to attend the Federation Day Parisian ceremony. The King and the Queen were compelled to show up, scared of being lynched by angry people. But it eventually went fine. Nowadays, it is the field where the Eiffel Tower stands.
The royal couple ended up arrested ( while trying to escape from France) . They were beheaded in 1792 after an agressive mock trial. Queen Marie Antoinette was even accused of incest on her son. As long as the royal couple lived, the monarchists, supported by the European foreign monarchies would continue to declare war against the new regime. The death penalty was somehow unavoidable, in the eyes of the French people of those times.
NB- Emperor Napoleon I got a lighter penalty in 1815 when he was sent to St Helens Island, near South Africa. He survived there during 6 long years before dying of stomach cancer ( or arsenic poisoning for some historians). His shrine can be visited at the Invalides National Museum ( metro Invalides).
You can learn more about the Queen’s last years of life by visiting the Conciergerie museum where she was jailed till her execution . It is located next to the Ministry of Justice on the Isle of La Cite( reads « Siteh »). ( Metro Cite ( Line 4) or Chatelet ( multiple lines such as nr 1 , 4,) ) .
Special Tip: there is a special price agreement for people holding a ticket of one of those places: Conciergerie Museum, Sainte Chapelle ( Holy Chapel, next to Conciergerie) , Pantheon Museum, Notre Dame towers. They will get a 2 euro discount on their Seine River cruises with the Vedettes du Pont-Neuf boat company. Information from the National Museums Center.
If you have a cruise ticket of the Vedettes du Pont Neuf, you will be able to visit the Conciergerie or the Pantheon at group rates.
By the way, my personal tip. You buy , online or offline, a combined ticket to Conciergerie and Holy Chapel. Visit first the Conciergerie ( go early, 9h30), as the queue is much shorter. Then, go to the Holy Chapel and tell the guard you are coming from the Conciergerie, and show your combined tickets. It will enable you to avoid the crazy long queue outside the Holy Chapel. People have to queue for a long time to enter the Holy Chapel, I have friends who could never enter, as the queue was always too long. This architectural masterpiece is worth the queue though.
So, back to French National Day, what do we do on July 14th nowadays ?
Well, it starts by a big Military Parade on the Champs Elysees, supervised by our President. It generally happens in the morning ( once, they did it by night) . It starts at Arc de Triomphe ( Triumph Arch) and ends at the Concorde Plaza. Metro stations in between are shut during the ceremony.
If you want to see something, you have to go there early. Some go there at 6.30am to be sure to be near the barriers. Since a wacko tried to shoot President Chirac, there are checkpoints and the police will search bags before letting you in. You may decide to stand on Rivoli Street, as the military parade splits in two at Concorde Plaza and one half goes down the Rivoli Street.
President Hollande reviews the troops before the parade. Here, he reviews the Republican Guard, aka the Presidential Guard, well-known for their horsetail helmets.
The Military Parade starts at 10.00 in 2015 and will end at 12.00. There are all the most prestigious military schools of France, the Navy, the military vehicles, the firemen. Each year a specific military squadron opens the ceremony by a special showcase.
The Foreign Legion is by far the most applauded with its famous anthem known as « Le Boudin » . They walk much slowlier than the other groups, hence they always close the march.
The Foreign Legion is an elite military entity , famous for its unique recruitment concept. Like the 1967 blockbuster « Dirty Dozen » ( Chinese: 十二金剛) , the Foreign Legion guys are hardboiled personalities coming from all around the world. Some are runaways that may be wanted for delinquency in their country of origin. However the French Army will reject any person with a blood crime record. Most guys are rebel men looking for some adventure out of civilian society. Even the USA are fascinated with these elite fighters who are often sent on the front line. They are often compared to the US Marines or the UK’s Special Forces.
As you can see on the picture, they did not wait for the hispter fashion to grow thick beards. Their parade uniform may include a leather apron and a hatch.
In the air, the French Air Force is very much present, with a aerial parade that you can even admire at La Defense, since they usually fly from La Defense Grande Arche. Be there about 10.00 and you’ll see all of them , from the helicopters to the French Patrol ( Patrouille de France), the worldwide famous French military aerial acrobatics elite unit.
In addition to November 11th and May 8th ( WWI and WWII Armistice Days) , National Day is another occasion to pay a tribute to our veterans. Everwhere in France, veterans associations organise special parades or flower ceremonies. The Parades are a tribute to all the people who sacrificed their lives during the wars France has gone through. In each French village, there is a war veteran monument.
Apart from military events, the National Day celebrations are very arty and musical as well .
Fireworks are organised by mayors across the country, either on July 13th or on July 14th everning. Since the sun sets late in July, the show stars quite late, around 10.30 or 11.00 pm.
Paris is famous worldwide for its fireworks. Everybody remembers the incredible Eiffel Tower fireworks show held on 2000 New Year’s eve. This year, for National Day, a 35mn fireworks show will start at about 11.00pm at the Trocadero plaza, at the feet of the Eiffel Tower.
Where to admire the fireworks ? Of course, you may arrange to be around the Eiffel Tower. But you may also spend the evening on a rooftop terrace, such as the Novotel Vaugirard Montparnasse or at the Branly Museum rooftop restaurant » Les Ombres ». You may also go to the Montparnasse Tower panoramic floor.
Maybe the Jules Verne could be inconvenient as it is on the Tower itself !
Apart from the fireworks and the military tribute ceremonies, there is another big tradition on National Day. It’s the » bal des pompiers’ ( firemen’s ball). In each city or village, the local firemen will organise a dance party that enables them to raise funds.The firemen themselves will be handling the customer service, in addition to their usual missions. In France , firemen are either professionals with a military status, or part-time volunteers ( some can be salarypeople). In Paris region, they are all professionals but there are young trainees as well.
The entrance fees are very reasonable, or even free. City councils and Tourisme organisations usually sponsor the event. If you want to chat with our handsome firemen , it’s the best moment !
It used to be a big dating-matchmaking occasion. Many French senior citizens actually met their spouse during a ball like that. However, nowadays, they seldom play waltz or tango, they would rather play pop music. Most French people cannot dance standard ballroom dances any longer.
Some cities may organise additional free events such as concerts. Paris City will offer a free opera and classical music concert near the Eiffel Tower just before the fireworks. You may alight at Ecole Militaire metro station or Trocadero, or Bir Hakeim. It will air on TV ( France 2) and on the radio ( France Inter). The 2015 concert will start at 9.30pm.
How to find out all these events ?
Just follow the music, it’s noisy enough , and there are direction signs everywhere , you cannot miss it. Most celebrations are either on July 13th or on July 14th nights.
Every village, town or city in France will organise fireworks and dance parties. I suggest you go 15 to 30 mn before the fireworks show so as to find a good spot.
Enjoy the fireworks displays and dance till dawn ! Vive la France !