European special forces involved in anti-extremist operations in Africa’s Sahel region were given prime position in France’s Bastille Day celebrations on Wednesday, in a sign of President Emmanuel Macron’s military priorities.
The traditional parade on France’s national day returned to the Champs-Elysees after a one-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Roughly 80 French and European special forces drawn from the multinational Takuba force in the Sahel led the procession on foot, a choice intended to send a diplomatic message from Paris.
Macron, who presided over the ceremony, announced a major drawdown of French troops in the Sahel region last month and is banking on his often reluctant European partners to send more troops to replace them.
Paris wants Takuba – which numbers only 600 troops currently, half of them French – to take over more responsibilities from the 5,100 soldiers in France’s Barkhane operation, who have been battling extremist groups in the Sahel for eight years.
The parade under grey skies and light rain was a scaled-down version of the usual event, with only 10,000 people in the stands instead of 25,000.
The holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789, which kicked off years of revolution in France.
This year’s event could be the last for 43-year-old Macron, who will finish a five-year term in April next year.
He is expected to seek re-election, however.
It will be the last for outgoing defense chief-of-staff Francois Lecointre, who looked emotional as he greeted Macron before reviewing the troops.
“There’s a continual decline of order in the world,” he told Le Monde newspaper on Saturday, referring to actions by Russia, Turkey and Iran, as well as terror groups such as ISIS in the Middle East and in Africa.
Alongside the traditional pageantry, fireworks displays and celebrations of Bastille Day, the southern Riviera town of Nice will mark the fifth anniversary of a terror attack that cost the lives of 86 people.
Prime Minister Jean Castex will visit the city for a ceremony at the site of a memorial for the dead, who were killed by a Tunisian man who drove a truck into crowds watching fireworks.
City authorities have organized a concert and 86 beams of light will illuminate the Mediterranean waterfront to honor the dead at 10:34 pm, the time of the start of the truck rampage.