Bastille Day is back, sort of.
France celebrated Bastille Day Wednesday with thousands of troops marching in a Paris parade, warplanes roaring overhead and traditional parties around the country, after last year’s events were scaled back because of virus fears.
Two horses stumbled while parading on the Champs-Elysees, tossing their uniformed riders, but overall the day’s main event went according to plan, and looked a lot like Bastille Days of the past. One soldier even used the occasion to propose to his girlfriend on the cobblestoned avenue, kneeling and kissing her hand.
The virus was never far away, however. A small group of protesters angry over new vaccine rules skirmished with police amid bursts of tear gas in Paris. Meanwhile, worries about resurgent infections prompted some towns to curtail annual fireworks gatherings.
The number of spectators at the Paris parade was small. Everyone who came had to show a special pass proving they were fully vaccinated, had recently recovered from the virus, or had a virus test that came back negative. On Wednesday evening, those attending an elaborate fireworks show at the Eiffel Tower faced similar restrictions.
Spectators from all over France flocked to Paris, happy to be able to see the parade in person despite the restrictions and long lines for virus security checks.
“I came especially for my son who is marching today,” said Gaelle Henry from Normandy. “It’s nice to be able to get out a little bit and finally get some fresh air and think that all the people are here, and that we are getting back to normal a little bit.”
Masks were ubiquitous among spectators.
De rigueur for the dignitaries watching the parade under a red-white-and-blue awning emulating the French flag.
As uniformed guards on horseback escorted President Emmanuel Macron, the clatter of hundreds of horseshoes accompanied military music. As Macron rode past restaurants, luxury boutiques, and movie theatres that had been closed for much of the previous year and a half, some onlookers cheered.
However, not everyone applauds his handling of the pandemic. Some cafe owners, hospital employees, and parents are protesting his decision this week to require vaccinations for all French health-care workers, as well as a special COVID pass for anyone over the age of 12 who visits a restaurant.
Meanwhile, many doctors and scientists are calling for tougher measures to contain the virus.
A few hundred protesters chanting “Liberty! Liberty!” marched through eastern Paris on Wednesday, confronting riot police who fired tear gas to try to disperse the advancing crowd. Protesters and police kicked the tear gas canisters at each other, and cyclists calmly weaved through the crowd.
The parade’s organisers dubbed it a “optimistic Bastille Day,” with the goal of “winning the future” and “celebrating a united France standing behind the tricolour (flag) to emerge from the pandemic.” While that optimism was widespread in France a few weeks ago, the delta variant is now fueling new infections, so the national mood has darkened.
Members of a European force fighting extremists in Mali and the surrounding Sahel region led the parade. Because of evolving threats, Macron announced last week that France will withdraw at least 2,000 troops from the region, focusing instead on the multi-national Takuba force.
Among others honored at Bastille Day were military medics who have shuttled vaccines to France’s overseas territories.
Among others honored at the parade were military medics who have shuttled vaccines to France’s overseas territories, treated virus patients or otherwise helped fight the pandemic.
Mirage and Rafale fighter jets thundered past in formation. In the final moments of the parade, two horses stumbled, throwing their Republican Guard riders onto the pavement. The guards quickly brought the horses under control and led them away. The reason for the fall was unclear.
Just before the ceremony, a soldier identified as Maximilien proposed to his girlfriend in a picturesque moment on the backdrop of the Arc de Triomphe, earning a round of hearty applause.
Macron and his wife Brigitte spoke at length after the ceremony with families of troops killed or wounded in the line of duty. On the eve of the event, Macron reiterated his push for greater defense cooperation among European countries, and greater global defense efforts against Islamic extremists.
“This moment of conviviality, of reunion … is first and foremost for us the opportunity to address our brothers in arms and their families, and give them a message of gratitude,” Macron said.
Last year’s parade was canceled and replaced by a static ceremony honoring health care workers who died fighting COVID-19. France has lost more than 111,000 lives overall to the pandemic.
Bastille Day marks the storming of the Bastille prison in eastern Paris on July 14, 1789, commemorated as the birth of the French Revolution.
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