France celebrated Bastille Day with thousands of troops marching in the Paris parade, warplanes roaring overhead and traditional parties around the country, after last year’s events were scaled back because of virus fears.
The traditional parade returned to the Champs-Elysees after a one-year hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic – and one soldier even used the occasion to propose to his girlfriend on the cobblestoned avenue, kneeling and kissing her hand.
Two horses stumbled in the final stages of the celebrations, throwing their Republican Guard riders onto the pavement, but overall the day’s main event went according to plan.
Virus fears are still lurking, but France’s government decided to go ahead with the parade anyway, as part of a broader effort to return to pre-pandemic activity.
The parade under grey skies and light rain was a scaled-down version of the usual event, with only 10,000 people in the stands instead of 25,000.
France celebrated its national holiday with thousands of troops marching down Champs-Elysees in Paris on Wednesday
European special forces involved in anti-jihadist operations in Africa’s Sahel region (pictured) were given prime position in France’s Bastille Day celebrations on Wednesday, in a sign of President Emmanuel Macron’s military priorities
The traditional parade on France’s national day returned to the Champs-Elysees after a one-year hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Pictured: Republican Guard ride their horses during the Bastille Day parade
Alpha jets from the French Air Force Patrouille de France fly past Eiffel Tower during the Bastille Day celebrations
The holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, 1789, which marked the birth of the French Revolution. Pictured: Troops of the Chad regiment parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue during the Bastille Day parade on Wednesday
Pupils of the School of the French Nationale Gendarmerie officers (Ecole des officers de la Gendarmerie nationale) take part in the annual Bastille Day military parade
A Republican Guard falls from his horse during the Bastille Day parade after the horse stumbled on the ground
Soldiers drive armoured vehicles drive down on the Champs-Elysees avenue during the Bastille Day parade
One soldier even used the occasion to propose to his girlfriend on the cobblestoned avenue, kneeling and kissing her hand
What is Bastille Day?
Bastille Day is the national day of France and is commemorated annually to mark the storming of the Bastille, a fortress in Paris used by the French monarchy as a political prison.
On July 14, 1789, approximately 900 French citizens stormed the fort and ultimately captured it, dealing a devastating symbolic and strategic blow to the country’s monarchy and sparking the broader French Revolution which ultimately toppled the monarchy which had ruled the nation for centuries.
While the years that followed the storming of the imposing fortress were very bloody and chaotic, it ultimately marked the turning point as France transitioned from monarchy to republic, something commemorated every year on the anniversary of the Bastille’s seizure by the French people.
The holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, 1789, which marked the birth of the French Revolution.
Spectators were restricted to a small section of the parade.
In addition, each person attending had to show a special pass proving they had been fully vaccinated, had recently recovered from the virus or a had negative virus test. Similar restrictions will be in place for those gathering to watch an elaborate fireworks show at the Eiffel Tower on Wednesday evening.
Spectators converged on Paris from around France, glad to be able to see the show in person even if frustrated with 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 the smaller-than-usual crowds along the avenue, and de rigueur for the dignitaries watching the parade under a red-white-and-blue awning emulating the French flag. The marching soldiers were unmasked – the French military said they have all been fully vaccinated or freshly tested for the virus.
European special forces involved in anti-jihadist operations in Africa’s Sahel region were given prime position in the parade, in a sign of President Emmanuel Macron’s military priorities.
Roughly 80 French and European special forces drawn from the multinational Takuba force in the Sahel led the procession on foot, a choice intended to send a diplomatic message from Paris.
Macron, who presided over the ceremony, announced a major drawdown of French troops in the Sahel region last month and is banking on his often reluctant European partners to send more troops to replace them.
Paris wants Takuba – which numbers only 600 troops currently, half of them French – to take over more responsibilities from the 5,100 soldiers in France’s Barkhane operation, who have been battling Islamist groups in the Sahel for eight years.
French President Emmanuel Macron and French Armies Chief of Staff General Francois Lecointre stand in the command car as they review troops prior to the annual Bastille Day military parade
Organizers of this year’s event dubbed it an ‘optimistic Bastille Day’ aimed at ‘winning the future’ and ‘celebrating a France standing together behind the tricolor (flag) to emerge from the pandemic.’ Pictured: The 1st Spahi Regiment stands next to armoured car AMX-10 RC prior to the the annual Bastille Day military parade
While that optimism was widely felt in France a few weeks ago, clouds have returned to the national mood as the delta variant fuels new infections and prompted Macron to announce new vaccine rules this week. Pictured: Members of the Republican Guard march in formation on the Champs Elysees prior to the Bastille Day parade
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and French Armies Chief of Staff General Francois Lecointre (right) stand in the command car during the annual Bastille Day military parade
Troops of the Chad regiment parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue during the Bastille Day parade and are followed by thousands of troops
French President Emmanuel Macron meets with families of French soldiers at the end of the annual Bastille Day parade
The clatter of hundreds of horseshoes accompanied military music as uniformed guards on horseback escorted President Emmanuel Macron. Some cheers rose up from civilian onlookers as Macron rode past restaurants, luxury boutiques and movie theaters that were shuttered for much of the past year and a half.
But not everyone is cheering his handling of the pandemic. Some cafe owners, hospital workers and parents are pushing back against his decision this week to require all French health care workers to get vaccinated, and a special COVID pass for anyone over 12 going to a restaurant. Many doctors and scientists, meanwhile, urge tougher measures to contain the virus.
Organizers of this year’s event dubbed it an ‘optimistic Bastille Day’ aimed at ‘winning the future’ and ‘celebrating a France standing together behind the tricolor (flag) to emerge from the pandemic.’ While that optimism was widely felt in France a few weeks ago, clouds have returned to the national mood as the delta variant fuels new infections and prompted Macron to announce new vaccine rules this week.
Leading the parade were members of a French-driven European force fighting extremists in Mali and the surrounding Sahel region. Macron announced last week that France is pulling at least 2,000 troops from the region because of evolving threats, and focusing more efforts on the multi-national Takuba force instead.
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.
French President Emmanuel Macron reviews troops during the annual Bastille Day military parade
Pupils of the Special Military School of Saint-Cyr (Ecole speciale militaire de Saint-Cyr) march during the annual Bastille Day military parade
Macron speaks to his wife Brigitte Macron as they attend the military parade on Wednesday
Soldiers from the European Task force Takuba march during the annual Bastille Day parade. Roughly 80 French and European special forces drawn from the multinational Takuba force in the Sahel led the procession on foot, a choice intended to send a diplomatic message from Paris
Pupils of Saint-Cyr Coetquidan military academy hold swords as they march down the Champs-Elysees avenue
Just before the ceremony, a trainee 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.
Amid delighted gasps from onlookers, the cadet, dressed in ceremonial uniform, dropped to his knee and briefly spoke to his girlfriend before placing a ring on her left hand, a video posted on the land army’s Twitter account showed.
He then stood, lowered his face mask and kissed her, to cheers from members of the public and ranks of service personnel.
‘It was a total surprise for her,’ 26-year-old Maximilien told BFM TV, adding that he had planned the proposal for two months.
The young soldier’s partner was allowed through a security cordon after the army learned of their comrade’s intentions, a land army spokeswoman said.
‘Everything is possible for our soldiers on the day of the #NationalDay. All our congratulations,’ the army tweeted.
Shortly after the proposal, Macron rode down the boulevard in a military jeep during the celebrations.
The clatter of hundreds of horseshoes accompanied military music as uniformed guards on horseback escorted President Emmanuel Macron
Jets of the Patrouille de France fly over the Champs-Elysees avenue during the Bastille Day parade
A French armoured division takes part in the annual Bastille Day parade
Students of ‘Ecole des Mousses’ Naval school parade during the annual Bastille Day military parade
Brigitte Macron (R) meets the crowd at the end of the annual Bastille Day military parade
Republican Guard cavalry officers march during the annual Bastille Day military parade
Members of the French Civil Defence (Securite Civile) march during the annual Bastille Day military parade
French President Emmanuel Macron reviews troops during the annual Bastille Day military parade
French Army armoured vehicles arrive at Place de la Concorde during the annual Bastille Day military parade
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.
This year’s event could be the last for 43-year-old Macron, who will finish a five-year term in April next year.
He is expected to seek re-election, however.
It will be the last for outgoing defence chief-of-staff Francois Lecointre, who looked emotional as he greeted Macron before reviewing the troops.
‘There’s a continual decline of order in the world,’ he told Le Monde newspaper on Saturday, referring to actions by Russia, Turkey and Iran, as well as terror groups such as Islamic State in the Middle East and in Africa.
Alongside the traditional pageantry, fireworks displays and celebrations of Bastille Day, the southern Riviera town of Nice will mark the fifth anniversary of a terror attack that cost the lives of 86 people.
Prime Minister Jean Castex will visit the city for a ceremony at the site of a memorial for the dead, who were killed by a Tunisian man who drove a truck into crowds watching fireworks.
City authorities have organised a concert and 86 beams of light will illuminate the Mediterranean waterfront to honour the dead at 10:34 pm, the time of the start of the truck rampage.