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France’s biggest celebration: What you need to know about Bastille Day

Fireman’s balls, parades and fireworks... Bastille Day is all about revving up that revolutionary feel. The Local explains.

France's biggest celebration: What you need to know about Bastille Day
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Even if you never knew twirling around in the arms of a fireman had anything to do with celebrating the revolution, just get close and embrace it (the spirit of the revolution we mean. Obviously).

Around July 14th, the French go wild, celebrating Bastille Day or le 14 Juillet as the national day is known in these parts.

READ ALSO World leaders to join Macron in Paris for Bastille Day celebrations

This year the festival falls on a Sunday, which on the minus side means foregoing the usual bank holiday, but on the plus side is the perfect excuse to make the festivities last two days instead of one.

Celebrations also generally mark the beginning of the holiday season when the French start winding down and packing up. 

What exactly are we celebrating?

On July 14th 1789, revolutionaries stormed the Bastille fortress, a symbol of the monarchy and political oppression in Paris. 

One year later, revolutionaries founded the Republic, edging France on the path towards democracy. 

Ironically, on the day the Bastille fell, there were only a handful of prisoners inside the jail including counterfeiters, madmen and an aristocrat. 

Historians explain that when the Bastille was stormed it was no longer being used as a prison. Revolutionaries had in fact targeted the jail to get gunpowder to overthrow the monarchy. 

Where should I celebrate?

In a fire station, of course! On July 13th and 14th, firemen in some towns will be opening their buildings and courtyards to the public for the traditional Bals des pompiers (fireman’s balls)

This is a fundraising dance. All the proceeds from the balls and the bars go towards funding fire stations across France. French firemen take turns manning the bar throughout the evening. 

The best part is that everybody turns up for the balls. Retirees waltz across the dancefloor while children run free. It’s a time when the French gather for a good night out. 

Of course, you also have to choose your ball wisely. Some will be more traditional and geared towards families. Others will be completely wild, with firemen prancing around in Chippendale fashion. 

READ ALSO Why are French firefighters so smokin' hot?

What else can I do to show my support for the revolution?

If you're in Paris go to the Champs Elysées. On the morning of July 14th, the French armed forces will be marching down the main avenue in Paris. On the Place de la Concorde, they salute the French president, the government and diplomats and overseas leaders, which this year include German's Angela Merkel and Britain's Theresa May.

Almost all French towns will have some sort of celebrations, from parades to fetes and concerts and dinner. Find out the details for your area at your local mairie.

Fireworks are also a big part of the celebration. Paris of course has a major display but many other smaller towns and cities will have big displays, often paired with music.

But don't go too mad because the other downside of the day falling on a Sunday is that we all have to get up and go to work the next day. Unless we drunkenly decide to overthrow the system again, of course.

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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