The parade along the Champs-Elysees is one of the three best-known features of Bastille Day in Paris, the other being the huge nighttime fireworks display over the Champ de Mars. Bastille Day, known to the French as “la fete nationale,” is held on July 14 each year and is the most important ceremonial day in France. Although the parade down the Champs-Elysees is a memorial event, in that it commemorates the events of July 14, 1789, it's predominantly a military parade in which thousands of soldiers march down the boulevard while the president of the republic reviews his country's troops.
Bastille Day marks the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, a fortified prison captured by Parisian citizens on July 14, 1789. In a period of political unrest in France, it was the first time the citizens had achieved a victory against the regime headed by the king. King Louis XVI was executed four years later, marking the formal end of the French monarchy and the beginning of the republic. It is these connections to the birth of the modern French Republic that give Bastille Day a significance similar to that of Independence Day in the United States. The first Bastille Day was celebrated in 1790, but since 1880 the date has been a designated national holiday.
The parade’s route along the Champs-Elysees takes it along one of Paris’ main thoroughfares. The 5,000-man strong parade starts close to the Arc de Triomphe, before moving roughly southeast toward the Place de la Concorde. The parade starts at 10 a.m., with troops lining up by 9 a.m., and lasts between one and two hours. Tens of thousands of people pack the sidewalks along the Champs-Elysees, so get there at least an hour before the parade starts to reserve a viewing spot. You can stand anywhere along the boulevard, although some seating in the Place de la Concorde is reserved for dignitaries, or consider booking a room in a Champs-Elysees hotel for a better view.
This is a purely military parade, so don’t expect to see carnival floats, marching bands or other attractions. All arms of the French military are represented in the parade, so you’ll see numerous infantry units, horse-mounted cavalry and motorized troops, some wearing elaborate ceremonial uniforms. Units of firefighters, police and the French Foreign Legion will also be represented. Each year, a different unit is chosen to march in the place of honor at the head of the parade; in 2013, the honor was given to Malian soldiers who fought alongside French troops to suppress an Islamic uprising earlier in the year.
One of the best-known features of the parade is the fly-past of French military aircraft that opens the event. France’s elite acrobatic aircraft team, the Patrouille de France – the equivalent of the U.S. military's “Thunderbirds” or “Blue Angels” -- leads the way, leaving red, white and blue contrails in the sky. The precise lineup of aircraft varies from year to year, but you’ll likely see fighter jets and reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, often alongside aircraft from other European countries to symbolize friendship and cooperation; for example, the 2013 fly-past included German, Belgian and Danish aircraft.