French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday (14 July) sought to showcase European military cooperation in France’s annual Bastille Day parade that included representatives of nine other European armies in a show of unity at a time of growing tensions between Europe and the United States.
Key EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, joined Macron in Paris to watch the parade down the Champs-Elysees that commemorates the July 14, 1789, storming of the Bastille fortress in Paris during the French Revolution.
Some 4,300 members of the armed forces, including regiments from other European armies, marched down the avenue’s famed cobblestones in a tradition that dates back to the aftermath of World War I.
Army dogs festooned with medals, members of France’s celebrated Foreign Legion and mounted cavalry in glittering uniforms brandishing ceremonial sabres all paraded in front of the high-ranking guests.
Meanwhile, French inventor and entrepreneur Franky Zapata showed off his futuristic flyboard, soaring above the Champs Elysees and the assembled leaders.
“The army is transforming: it is modernising for our soldiers, our sovereignty and our independence,” Macron told France 2 television.
Standing in an open-top command car alongside France’s chief of staff General Francois Lecointre, Macron was met with some jeers and whistles from supporters of the “yellow vest” movement who have staged weekly protests against the government since last fall.
Two prominent members of the movement, Jerome Rodrigues and Maxime Nicolle, were both detained by the police, sources told AFP.
The celebrations of France’s national day were followed by clashes that erupted between anti-government protesters and police that recalled violence seen at the peak of the “yellow vest” protest movement earlier this year.
Police fired tear gas to clear protesters from the iconic Champs-Elysees, as spectators who had witnessed the parade and startled foreign tourists took cover.
The Paris police said 180 people had been detained over the violence, and 25 held for questioning were later released with 13 still in custody late in the day.
Protesters tore down security barriers, set fire to rubbish bins and portable toilets, and chanted anti-government slogans like “Macron resign!” before calm was restored.
‘Europe never so important’
Closer European defence cooperation has been one of Macron’s key foreign policy aims and the president shows no sign of wavering despite growing political turbulence in Germany and Britain’s looming exit from the European Union.
At the 2017 parade, Macron’s guest of honour was the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump as the young French leader sought to take the initiative in forming a bond with his US counterpart.
But since then ties between Trump and Macron have soured over the US pullout from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, as well as France’s new law for a tax on digital giants, mostly US companies.
“President Trump has been an excellent ambassador for a Europe of defence,” Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told the Parisien newspaper Sunday, pointing to “questions, even thinly veiled threats he made towards Europe or on the durability of American commitment”.
Macron, who pushed the idea of the European Intervention Initiative (EI2) to undertake missions outside of existing structures like NATO, insisted on the importance of European defence cooperation.
“Never, since the end of World War II has Europe been so important,” Macron, who after coming to power in 2017 controversially dispensed with the president’s traditional July 14 television interview, said in a written statement.
Merkel told reporters after the event that the parade was a “great gesture for a European defence policy” and Germany was “honoured” to have taken part.
Forces from all nine countries taking part alongside France in the initiative – including Britain and Germany – were represented at the parade.
In a sign of France’s ambition to be a leading modern military power under Macron, the president Saturday announced the creation of a national space force command that will eventually be part of the air force.
A German A400M transport plane and a Spanish C130 took part in fly-bys, 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 and 100 personnel for France’s operation in the African Sahel region.
Outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May had been expected to attend, but Britain was instead represented by senior cabinet minister David Lidington, the Elysee said.
Also present were members of the 5,000-strong Franco-German Brigade (BFA), which was created in 1989 as a symbol of postwar unity between France and Germany, and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.