PARIS (AP) — France celebrated its national holiday Friday with whizzing warplanes and a grand Bastille Day parade in Paris — and with more than 100,000 police deployed around the country to prevent a new outbreak of unrest in underprivileged neighborhoods.
This year, the celebrations marking 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 teenager with North African roots that laid bare anger over entrenched inequality and racial discrimination.
Fighter jets and military helicopters whooshed Friday right above the site where 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk was killed last month, in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, on their way toward the Arc de Triomphe and the VIP guests watching the parade. The streets were unusually quiet as local residents gathered at Nanterre’s Nelson Mandela Square to watch the flyby.
India was the guest of honor at this year’s Bastille Day parade, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi watching 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 aerial display.
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 countering China’s growing influence in 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 included 6,500 people marching, 94 planes and helicopters, 219 ground vehicles, 200 horses and 86 dogs. Festivities are held in towns and cities around France to commemorate the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 that marked the start of the French Revolution, and 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 Merzouk’s killing in 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.
The roses on a roadside memorial to Merzouk on the Boulevard des Bouvets had long withered by Friday’s Bastille Day celebrations. A nearby Monoprix supermarket was still boarded up, and the walls near the intersection where the police shot and killed the teenager were still tagged with words of anger: “Vengeance for Nahel,” anti-police slogan “ACAB,” and “Death to the king,” an apparent dig at what is seen as Macron’s out-of-touch leadership.
Still, some residents who gathered to watch the holiday flyover saw reasons to celebrate Bastille Day.
“It’s a moment of pleasure,” said Aurélie V., 38, who accompanied her newborn infant to watch the parade. She spoke on condition her last name not be used because of continued tensions in her neighborhood. “I came here to share this with my son, to show the strength of our country.”
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.
Because unrest tends to spike every year around Bastille Day and because France remains on edge, the 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.
Youcef Bounab reported from Nanterre.