French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday sought to showcase European military cooperation in the annual Bastille Day parade at a time of growing tensions between Europe the United States.
Key EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, joined Macron to watch the parade down the Champs-Elysees that marks the July 14, 1789 storming of the Bastille fortress in Paris in the French Revolution.
Over 4,000 members of the armed forces, including regiments from other European armies, marched down the famed cobbles of the avenue 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.
Standing in an open-top command car alongside France’s chief of staff General Francois Lecointre, Macron inspected the waiting forces and waved to the crowds.
But in a reminder of the domestic troubles the president has faced in the last months, he met jeers and whistles from supporters of the “yellow vest” movement who have staged weekly protests against the government.
Two prominent members of the movement Jerome Rodrigues and Maxime Nicolle, were both detained by the police, sources told AFP.
– ‘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 freshly-inaugurated US President Donald Trump as the young French leader sought to take the initiative in forming a bond with his 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.
Macron, who pushed the idea of the European Intervention Initiative (E2I) to undertake missions outside of existing structures like NATO, says European defence cooperation is crucial.
“Never, since the end of World War II has Europe been so important,” Macron said in a statement to mark July 14.
He said the aim of the E2I was to “act together and reinforce our capacity to act together,” adding: “Our security and our defence pass through Europe.”
Forces from all nine countries taking part alongside France in the E2I — 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.
Highlighting France’s continued commitment to NATO, the alliance’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg was also present at the parade.
– Eyes on Merkel –
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.
Merkel, who is battling to keep her grand coalition together at home, was again under close scrutiny after she suffered three episodes of shaking at official events in recent weeks.
Some 4,300 members of the armed forces, 196 vehicles, 237 horses, 69 planes and 39 helicopters were mobilised for the event in the heart of the French capital.