An international military band performs on Place de la Concorde during the Bastille Day military parade Friday, July 14, 2023 in Paris. AP
This year, the annual events celebrating the start of the French Revolution on July 14, 1789 come in the wake of the nation’s most serious rioting in nearly 20 years, following the fatal police shooting of a teen with North African roots that laid bare anger over entrenched inequality and racial discrimination.
India is the guest of honor at this year’s Bastille Day parade, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi watching in the VIP tribune alongside French President Emmanuel Macron. About 240 Indian troops led the march down the Champs-Elysees before thousands of French forces, and French-made Indian warplanes joined the traditional flyby above the event.
France often showcases international partners on Bastille Day, and the choice of India comes as France looks to further strengthen cooperation on fighting climate change, military sales and the strategic Indo-Pacific region. But human rights were missing from the vast agenda, despite concerns raised by European lawmakers, rights groups and others.
Russia's war in Ukraine — central to last year’s Bastille Day celebrations – echoed in this year’s events as well. Vehicles on display included the Caesar anti-missile batteries that France is providing to Ukraine, and Ukrainian officials were invited to join Macron in the VIP seats.
On the eve of France's national day, Macron gave a posthumous Legion of Honor award to a French journalist killed in Ukraine earlier this year, Arman Soldin of news agency Agence France-Presse.
The Bastille Day parade includes 6,500 people marching, 94 planes and helicopters, 219 ground vehicles, 200 horses and 86 dogs. Celebrations are held in towns and cities around France, which are meant to celebrate France’s ideals of ’’liberty, equality and fraternity.”
But the motto rings hollow for many people living in neglected housing projects who trace their roots to former French colonies and struggle with lack of opportunity and day-to-day racism. These issues came to the fore after the police killing of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk last month in the Paris suburb of Nanterre during a traffic stop.
The fatal shooting at point-blank range, captured on video, sparked several days of clashes with police, burning of buildings and vehicles and looting of stores in cities and towns around France.
Macron hasn't directly addressed the issues raised by the killing of Merzouk, focusing instead on supporting towns that saw damage in rioting. A presidential aide said that the recent violence had “no impact’’ on plans for the Bastille Day parade, but said the celebrations come “at a time when it is necessary to reaffirm national cohesion.”
Fighter jets in formation passed over Merzouk's hometown of Nanterre in Bastille Day rehearsals this week. On Friday, they zipped past Nanterre on their way toward the Arc de Triomphe and the political and military elite gathered on the Place de la Concorde, a plaza meant to celebrate national harmony.
Bracing for more violence around Bastille Day, when unrest tends to spike every year, France's government deployed an exceptional 130,000 police Thursday and Friday. Fireworks were banned in several towns, including Nanterre, after they had been used to target police in the recent rioting.
Overnight Thursday to Friday, the Interior Ministry reported 97 people arrested in urban violence and 218 cars set alight around the country. That was slightly lower than last year.