PARIS (REUTERS, AFP) – European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday (July 14) for the traditional Bastille Day military parade in Paris, which this year honoured European military cooperation.
After riding down the iconic Champs Elysees boulevard in a military vehicle escorted by motorcycles and a cavalry procession, Macron joined leaders also including Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa for the parade, which began with a display of tech innovations.
The attractions included drones, miniature autonomous vehicles, soldiers armed with anti-drone guns, and what looked like a “flying soldier” - a man swishing in the air on a flyboard, drawing cheers from the leaders and spectators.
Bastille Day commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789, one of the key events of the French Revolution.
The day has become a national holiday in France.
Some 4,300 soldiers, around 200 vehicles and more than 100 aircraft, some from other European countries, are taking part in the parade that was opened by Spanish troops.
In a Bastille Day message to the French people published before the parade, Macron said he wanted to highlight France’s irrevocable commitment to consolidate French and European security.
“Never since the end of the Second World War has Europe been so necessary. The construction of a Europe of defence, in connection with the Atlantic Alliance ... is a priority for France. It is the theme of this parade,” Macron said.
“Acting together and strengthening our ability to act collectively is one of the challenges that the European Intervention Initiative, along with other key European projects, wants to address,” he added.
The European Intervention Initiative is a 10-country coalition of European militaries ready to react to crises. The French-led initiative, which includes Germany, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, was launched last year.
YELLOW VEST PROTEST
The parade ended without any glitches. However, police later fired tear gas to disperse protesters from the Champs Elysees a few hours after Macron had presided over the Bastille Day parade.
The boulevard in central Paris was reopened to traffic as soon as the parade finished but a few hundred protesters from the grassroots ‘yellow vests’ movement tried to occupy it.
France’s BFM television showed images of police firing tear gas to disperse the protesters, some hooded, who tried to block the road with metal barricades, dustbins and other debris.
Several loud bangs could be heard. Protesters hurled objects at the police, booed and set a bin on fire.
Earlier, a French police source and a court source said some 152 ‘yellow vest’ protesters and their leaders had been detained near the Champs Elysees as they tried to stage a protest.
Authorities had banned all yellow vest protests around the area, but several demonstrators managed to get on the avenue and turned their backs, booed and whistled while President Macron was riding by at the start of the parade.
Weekly demonstrations by yellow vest protesters – named after the high-visibility jackets they wear and mostly over the cost of living – have dwindled to just a few hundred people over the past few weeks from around 300,000 nationwide in November.
SHOW OF FORCES
Forces from all nine countries taking part alongside France in the E2I - including Britain and Germany - were represented at the parade.
A German A400M transport plane and a Spanish C130 took part in fly-bys at the parade, as well as two British Chinook helicopters.
The Chinooks are a major symbol of British-French defence cooperation even as Brexit looms, with Britain deploying three of the aircraft for France's operation in the African Sahel region.
The three helicopters and almost 100 service personnel have been deployed to the French-led operation in Mali since 2018. London delighted Paris by announcing that their mission would be extended.
Also present will be members of the 5,000-strong Franco-German Brigade, which was created in 1989 as a symbol of postwar unity between France and Germany, and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
A day before the parade, Mr Macron announced the creation of a new national military space force command that will eventually be part of his country's air force.
For Britain's Mrs May, the parade will be one of her last major engagements before stepping down as prime minister.
The demeanour of Dr Merkel, who is battling to keep her grand coalition together at home, will again be under scrutiny after she suffered three episodes of shaking at official events in recent weeks.