PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday put European military cooperation at the heart of the Bastille Day parade at a time of growing tensions with the United States.
Key EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, joined Macron to watch the annual 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 force were to make the ceremonial march to the Place de la Concorde, as fighter jets roared overhead.
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.
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.
‘Europe never so important’
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 Two 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 — will be represented at the parade.
In a sign of France’s ambition to be a leading modern military power under Macron, the president on Saturday announced the creation of a national space force command that will eventually be part of the air force.
“We will reinforce our knowledge of the situation in space, we will better protect our satellites, including in an active manner,” Macron said as he announced the plan, which mirrors a US initiative championed by Trump.
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 will take 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 is instead represented by senior cabinet minister David Lidington, the Elysee said.
Also present are 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, will again be 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 are mobilised for the event in the heart of the French capital.