PARIS — 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.
Two horses stumbled while parading on the Champs-Elysees, tossing their uniformed riders, but overall the day’s main event went according to plan, and looked a lot like Bastille Days of the past. One soldier even used the occasion to propose to his girlfriend on the cobblestoned avenue, kneeling and kissing her hand.
The virus was never far away, however. A small group of protesters angry over new vaccine rules skirmished with police amid bursts of tear gas in Paris. Meanwhile, worries about resurgent infections prompted some towns to curtail annual fireworks gatherings.
At the Paris parade, the number of onlookers was limited. Each person attending had to show a special pass proving they had been fully vaccinated, had recently recovered from the virus or a had negative virus test. Similar restrictions were in place for those watching 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 parade 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 Normandy. “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 spectators, and de rigueur for the dignitaries watching the parade under a red-white-and-blue awning emulating the French flag.
The clatter of hundreds of horseshoes accompanied military music as uniformed guards on horseback escorted President Emmanuel Macron. Some cheers rose up from civilian onlookers as Macron rode past restaurants, luxury boutiques and movie theaters that were shuttered for much of the past year and a half.
But not everyone is cheering his handling of the pandemic. Some cafe owners, hospital workers and parents are pushing back against his decision this week to require all French health care workers to get vaccinated, and a special COVID pass for anyone over 12 going to a restaurant.
Many doctors and scientists, meanwhile, are urging tougher measures to contain the virus.
A few hundred protesters chanting “Liberty! Liberty!” marched through eastern Paris on Wednesday, confronting riot police who fired tear gas to try to disperse the advancing crowd. Protesters and police kicked the tear gas canisters at each other, and cyclists calmly weaved through the crowd.
Organizers of this year’s parade 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.
Leading the parade were members of a 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.
Mirage and Rafale fighter jets thundered past in formation. In the final moments of the parade, two horses stumbled, throwing their Republican Guard riders onto the pavement. The guards quickly brought the horses under control and led them away. The reason for the fall was unclear.
Just before the ceremony, a soldier identified as Maximilien proposed to his girlfriend in a picturesque moment on the backdrop of the Arc de Triomphe, earning a round of hearty applause.
Macron and his wife Brigitte spoke at length after the ceremony with families of troops killed or wounded in the line of duty. On the eve of the event, Macron reiterated his push for greater defense cooperation among European countries, and greater global defense efforts against Islamic extremists.
“This moment of conviviality, of reunion … 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.
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 overall to the pandemic.
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.