Firemen's Ball Ushers In France's Bastille Day

On this day in 1789, crowds stormed the Bastille prison, where the king kept his enemies. The monarchy was overthrown in a revolution.

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On this day in 1789, crowds stormed the Bastille prison in Paris which is where King Louis XVI kept his enemy. It was the start of the French Revolution which overthrew the monarchy. Much like our July 4, July 14, Bastille Day, is a national holiday in France. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sent us a postcard from this year's celebrations.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: There are many July 14 traditions - the military parade down the Champs Elysees Avenue, the fireworks that light up the skies above. But one of my favorite Bastille Day traditions are the firemen's balls. For two nights every year - July 13 and 14 - French firemen open up their barracks and courtyards and throw a giant dance party for the people. Twenty-nine-year-old Pierre Louis Rouer and his friends have just cracked open a bottle of champagne.

PIERRE LOUIS ROUER: So we're here to have some fun with the French firemen which are great, great boys, very famous here in France. And they're here to save your life, but also to have fun tonight because it's a big, big fiesta.

BEARDSLEY: Firefighter Jean Coulomnier says the balls offer a rare moment of joyful exchange between firefighters and the public.

JEAN COULOMNIER: All the year when we see the people it's for pain, accidents and today it's for enjoy.

BEARDSLEY: On this night, the firetrucks are parked on the street to make room for the crowds. There's no age limit for the popular dances. There are seniors and little kids in the crowd. Transplanted Canadians John and Susan Smith say that's the beauty of the balls.

JOHN SMITH: It's not stratified by age or culture so everybody's there. It's fantastic.

SUSAN SMITH: Yeah. And you know what, it's so natural. It's so - everybody's just having a good time.

J. SMITH: There's no edge. There's no edge.

S. SMITH: There's no edge.

J. SMITH: There's no edge of violence or no edge of aggressiveness. People are just having fun.

BEARDSLEY: Eleven-year-old Vincent Levy says he's having fun, though he can't quite remember the significance of the date.

VINCENT LEVY: (Through translator) Well, it's about how the French and the Germans fought and how we have to remember.

BEARDSLEY: No, whispers his father, it's about the revolution. Oh well, there is a lot of history to keep track of in this country. I end the night close to home in the 15th arrondissement.

BEARDSLEY: Well, I'm in the middle of a firemen's ball. They've got the glittering disco lights going around, a big band playing. There's at least 1,000 people here. And this is how we celebrate Bastille Day in France.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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