PARIS (AP) — Bastille Day is back, sort of.
France celebrated its national holiday Wednesday with thousands of troops marching in a Paris parade, warplanes roaring overhead and traditional parties around the country, after last year’s events were scaled back because of virus fears.
This year those fears are still lurking, but the government decided to go ahead with the parade on the Champs-Elysees anyway, as part of a broader effort to return to pre-pandemic activity.
The number of onlookers was limited, and they were restricted to a small section of the parade. In addition, each person attending had to show a special pass proving they have been fully vaccinated, had recently recovered from the virus or a had negative virus test. Similar restrictions will be in place for those gathering to watch an elaborate fireworks show at the Eiffel Tower on Wednesday evening.
Spectators converged on Paris from around France, glad to be able to see the show in person even if frustrated with the restrictions and long lines for virus security checks.
“I came especially for my son who is marching today,” said Gaelle Henry from the northern city of Lille. “It’s nice to be able to get out a little bit and finally get some fresh air and think that all the people are here, and that we are getting back to normal a little bit.”
Masks were ubiquitous among the smaller-than-usual crowds along the avenue, and de rigueur for the dignitaries watching the show under a red-white-and-blue awning emulating the French flag. The marching soldiers were unmasked — the French military said they have all been fully vaccinated or freshly tested for the virus.
Some cheers rose up as President Emmanuel Macron rode atop a military reconnaissance vehicle along the cobblestoned Champs-Elysees, past restaurants, luxury boutiques and movie theaters that were shuttered for much of the pandemic. The clatter of hundreds of horseshoes accompanied military music as uniformed guards on horseback escorted the president.
Organizers of this year’s event dubbed it an “optimistic Bastille Day” aimed at “winning the future” and “celebrating a France standing together behind the tricolor (flag) to emerge from the pandemic.” While that optimism was widely felt in France a few weeks ago, clouds have returned to the national mood as the delta variant fuels new infections and prompted Macron to announce new vaccine rules this week.
Leading the parade were members of a French-driven European force fighting extremists in Mali and the surrounding Sahel region. Macron announced last week that France is pulling at least 2,000 troops from the region because of evolving threats, and focusing more efforts on the multi-national Takuba force instead.
Among others honored at the parade were military medics who have shuttled vaccines to France’s overseas territories, treated virus patients or otherwise helped fight the pandemic.
A total of 73 warplanes, medical helicopters and other aircraft traversed the skies over the Paris region.
“This moment of conviviality, of reunion, on the eve of our National Day, is first and foremost for us the opportunity to address our brothers in arms and their families, and give them a message of gratitude,” Macron said in a speech to the French military on Tuesday.
Last year’s parade was canceled and replaced by a static ceremony honoring health care workers who died fighting COVID-19.
France has lost more than 111,000 lives to the pandemic, and the government is pushing hard to get more people vaccinated to fight resurgent infections driven by the delta variant.
Bastille Day marks the storming of the Bastille prison in eastern Paris on July 14, 1789, commemorated as the birth of the French Revolution.
Patrick Hermansen contributed to this report.