PARIS (AP) — The war in Ukraine has even shaken up Bastille Day, a powerful political, historical and symbolic event in France.
France celebrated its national holiday Thursday with thousands of French troops marching down the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris alongside allies from Eastern Europe. The parade also featured warplanes, military vehicles and a drone in a performance showing off France’s might and its military efforts to support Ukraine.
In a Bastille Day nationally televised interview, French President Emmanuel Macron warned his compatriots that the worst war that Europe has faced in decades “will continue” and defended Europe’s sanctions strategy.
“We want to stop this war without getting involved in this war. At the same time, we want to do everything so that Russia doesn’t win, so that Ukraine can defend its territory. We don’t want a world war,” he said.
The opening of this year’s Bastille Day parade was designed to demonstrate France’s commitment to NATO and to European allies touched most closely by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
Troops from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary were assigned the front position, bearing their national flags. Multinational troops deployed in Romania after the Russian invasion of Ukraine marched after them.
The higher-than-usual temperatures baking Paris this week didn’t deter crowds from watching the parade, surrounded by tight security.
Young people from France’s universal national service program stood and applauded as the parade got underway, happy to be watching the event in person. Jinnia Tchamo-Kwahou was one of them, attending for the first time. She told The Associated Press that the parade was “ wonderful, majestic and impressive.” The 17-year-old daughter of Cameroonian immigrants said she feels “fully French” and embraces “French Republican values” without denying her double heritage.
A fighter jet flyover wowed the crowd with an opening formation that trailed red, white and blue smoke over the Arc de Triomphe.
On the eve of Bastille Day, Macron hailed Ukraine’s unexpected ability to stand up to Russia’s aggression. He called for a review of France’s military organization to make it more nimble in the face of changing threats.
“Each and every one of us was struck by the Ukrainian nation’s moral strength that allowed it to hold on despite an initially unfavorable balance of power,” Macron told French military brass Wednesday night.
In his interview Thursday, he warned that Russia could cut off all gas to Europe in protest over Western sanctions. He said France would work to find other energy sources but urged the public to turn off unneeded lights and join a nationwide effort of energy “sobriety.”
Macron and other dignitaries presided over Thursday’s event in which more than 6,000 people and 200 horses of France’s Republican Guard took part, along with 65 planes, 25 helicopters and 181 vehicles.
A Reaper, a sophisticated American combat drone, swooped over the parade for the first time. Such a drone embodies the modernization of France’s military equipment, and was used in Niger and elsewhere in Africa’s Sahel region as part of France’s military operation to defeat jihadists. Drones are also a powerful symbol of the Ukraine war, where they’re being used more intensively than any other war to date.
The motto of this year’s Bastille events, “Share the Flame,” is a reference to France hosting the Olympic Games in 2024. Medal-winning Olympic and Paralympic athletes were honored at the end of the parade. The spectacle closes with a nighttime fireworks show set off from the Eiffel Tower.
Bastille Day marks the July 14, 1789, storming of the Bastille prison by angry Paris crowds that helped spark the French Revolution and by extension, a spirit of national unity, thanks to broad rights granted to citizens in the ensuing years.
For all the protests and other tensions France has faced in recent years, the Bastille Day events offer a moment of togetherness and celebration.
Priyogika Baddrani, a Sri Lankan refugee who works as a cleaner in Paris, felt honored to be part of the Bastille Day parade staff after fleeing terrorism 16 years ago.
“My children, my husband and my mother live in France,” she told The AP. “France has become my home, providing me security, work and good pay.”
Story: Jade Le Deley. Alex Turnbull and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.