PARIS — Bastille Day has back, in a sense.
After last year’s celebrations were cancelled due to virus worries, France celebrated its national holiday on Wednesday with thousands of troops marching in a Paris parade, aircraft screaming overhead, and customary parties around the country.
Two horses fell while marching along the Champs-Elysees, throwing their uniformed riders, but the day’s major event went down without a hitch, and it looked eerily similar to prior Bastille Days. On the cobblestoned boulevard, one soldier even proposed to his lover by kneeling and kissing her hand.
The virus, on the other hand, was never far away. In Paris, a small group of demonstrators furious over new vaccination regulations clashed with police amid tear gas bursts. Meanwhile, fears about emerging illnesses caused other communities to postpone their annual fireworks displays.
The number of spectators during the Paris procession was small. Everyone who came had to present a special pass indicating they were completely vaccinated, had recently recovered from the illness, or had a viral test that came back negative. On Wednesday evening, guests attending an extravagant fireworks spectacular at the Eiffel Tower faced similar limitations.
Spectators from all around France flocked to Paris, happy to be able to watch the parade in person despite the limitations and long queues for viral security checks.
Gaelle Henry from Normandy stated, “I came specifically for my kid who is marching today.” “It’s great to be able to walk out a little bit and finally get some fresh air, and to think that everyone is here and that things are starting to come back to normal.”
The dignitaries viewing the procession under a red-white-and-blue canopy mimicking the French flag wore masks, which were common among spectators.
As uniformed guards on horseback led President Emmanuel Macron, the clatter of hundreds of horseshoes accompanied military music. As Macron cycled by restaurants, luxury stores, and movie theatres that had been closed for most of the previous year and a half, some onlookers cheered.
However, not everyone applauds his management of the epidemic. Some cafe owners, hospital employees, and parents are protesting his decision this week to demand vaccinations for all French healthcare personnel, as well as a special COVID permit for everyone over the age of 12 who visits a café.
Meanwhile, many physicians and scientists are calling for stronger steps to contain the virus.
On Wednesday, a few hundred demonstrators marched through eastern Paris, screaming “Liberty! Liberty!” and facing riot police who used tear gas to disperse the throng. Cyclists navigated smoothly through the mob as protesters and police kicked tear gas canisters at one other.
The parade’s organisers termed it an “optimistic Bastille Day,” with the goal of “winning the future” and “celebrating a united France standing behind the tricolour (flag) to emerge from the epidemic.” 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 shifting threats, Macron said last week that France will withdraw at least 2,000 troops from the region, focusing instead on the multi-national Takuba force.
Military doctors who sent vaccinations to France’s overseas territories, treated virus victims, and generally assisted in the battle against the epidemic were among those recognised during the ceremony.
Fighter aircraft from the Mirage and Rafale families roared by information. Two horses stumbled at the end of the procession, putting their Republican Guard riders to the ground. The horses were immediately brought under control and taken away by the soldiers. The cause of the fall was unknown.
A soldier identified as Maximilien proposed to his fiancée in a romantic moment against the backdrop of the Arc de Triomphe just before the ceremony, eliciting a wave of applause.
Following the event, Macron and his wife Brigitte talked with relatives of servicemen killed or injured in the line of duty. On the eve of the event, Macron reaffirmed his call for stronger European defence cooperation as well as increased worldwide defence operations against Islamic extremists.
“This time of conviviality, of reunion… is first and foremost an occasion for us to address our brothers in arms and their families, and convey our gratitude,” Macron added.
The march was cancelled last year, and a static ceremony was held in its stead to memorialise health care professionals who perished battling COVID-19. The epidemic has claimed the lives of approximately 111,000 people in France.
The storming of the Bastille prison in eastern Paris on July 14, 1789, is remembered as the beginning of the French Revolution.