France marks Bastille Day with pomp, a salute to India, and more cops to stop new trouble.
© Images AGN

PARIS—France celebrated its national holiday, Bastille Day, on Friday with whizzing warplanes and a big parade in Paris. More than 100,000 police officers were also stationed all over the country to keep poor neighborhoods from getting into trouble again.

This year’s celebrations of the start of the French Revolution on July 14, 1789, come after the most serious riots in the country in almost 20 years. This was caused by the police shooting and killing of a teenager with North African roots, which showed how angry people were about long-standing inequality and racism.

On their way to the Arc de Triomphe and the VIP guests watching the parade, fighter jets and military helicopters flew right over the spot where 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk was killed last month in the Paris neighborhood of Nanterre. People from Nanterre met in Nelson Mandela Square to watch the pass, and the streets were particularly quiet.

This year, India was the guest of honor at the Bastille Day parade. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron watched the show together. About 240 Indian soldiers led the march down the Champs-Elysees, which was followed by thousands of French soldiers and Indian airplanes made in France.

France often shows off its foreign partners on Bastille Day. France chose India because it wants to work with India to fight climate change, sell more weapons, and stop China from becoming more powerful in the key Indo-Pacific region. But human rights weren’t on the long list of things to do, even though European leaders, rights groups, and others were worried.

Russia’s war in Ukraine was a big part of last year’s Bastille Day events, and it was also a big part of this year’s. The Caesar anti-missile weapons that France is giving to Ukraine were among the vehicles on show. Ukrainian officials were asked to sit with Macron in the VIP seats.

On the day before France’s national day, Macron gave Arman Soldin, a French journalist who was killed in Ukraine earlier this year, the Legion of Honor award after he had already died. Soldin worked for the news agency Agence France-Presse.

There were 6,500 marchers, 94 planes and helicopters, 219 ground vehicles, 200 horses, and 86 dogs in the Bastille Day celebration. In towns and places all over France, celebrations are held to remember the breaking of the Bastille jail in 1789, which started the French Revolution, and to honor the country’s ideas of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

But the motto doesn’t mean much to many people who live in run-down housing projects, come from former French countries, and have to deal with racism and a lack of opportunities every day. After Merzouk was killed in Nanterre during a traffic stop, these problems became more important.

The deadly shooting at point-blank range, which was caught on video, led to days of fighting with police, torching buildings and cars, and stealing from stores in cities and towns all over France.

By Friday’s Bastille Day events, the roses on a roadside shrine to Merzouk on Boulevard des Bouvets had already died. Near the intersection where the police shot and killed the teenager, the Monoprix store was still boarded up, and angry words were still written on the walls: “Vengeance for Nahel,” the anti-police slogan “ACAB,” and “Death to the king,” an apparent jab at Macron’s out-of-touch leadership.

Still, some people who came to watch the Bastille Day flight thought there were reasons to party.

“It’s a moment of pleasure,” said Aurélie V., 38, who went to the show with her newborn baby. She agreed to talk as long as her last name wasn’t used. This is because there are still problems in her area. “I brought my son here to show him how strong our country is.”

Macron hasn’t directly talked about the problems raised by the death of Merzouk. Instead, he’s focused on helping towns that were hurt by riots. A presidential aide said that the recent violence had “no effect” on plans for the Bastille Day parade, but that it was important to “reaffirm national cohesion” at this time.

This week, as part of preparations for Bastille Day, fighter jets flew in order over Merzouk’s home town of Nanterre. On Friday, they sped past Nanterre on their way to the Arc de Triomphe, and the political and military elite met on the Place de la Concorde, a square meant to celebrate national unity.

Because of this and the fact that France is always on edge, the government put an extra 130,000 police on the streets Thursday and Friday. After they were used to hurt police in the recent riots, fireworks were banned in several towns, including Nanterre.

The Interior Ministry said that from Thursday night to Friday morning, 218 cars were set on fire around the country and 97 people were arrested in cities. That was a little less than the year before.

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