France says ‘merci’ to virus heroes on poignant Bastille Day

Associated Press

A firefighter wears a face mask with the colors of the French flag, prior to the Bastille Day parade Tuesday, July 14, 2020 on the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris. France are honoring nurses, ambulance drivers, supermarket cashiers and others on its biggest national holiday Tuesday. Bastille Day’s usual grandiose military parade in Paris is being redesigned this year to celebrate heroes of the coronavirus pandemic.

-Christophe Ena

PARIS (AP) — Medics in white coats replaced uniformed soldiers as stars of France’s Bastille Day ceremonies Tuesday as the usual grandiose military parade in Paris was recalibrated to honor medics who died fighting COVID-19, supermarket cashiers, postal workers and other heroes of the pandemic.

Yet for thousands of participants in an organized protest across town, the national homage was not nearly enough to make up for missteps by French President Emmanuel Macron and his government before and during the coronavirus pandemic. Riot police tightly surrounded the largely peaceful demonstrators marching to Bastille plaza, where the French Revolution was born on July 14, 1789.

The contrasting scenes marked a Bastille Day like any other, overshadowed by fears of resurgent infections in a country where more than 30,000 people have already lost their lives to the coronavirus.

With tears in their eyes or smiles on their faces, medical workers stood silently as lengthy applause rang out over the Place de la Concorde in central Paris from Macron, the head of the World Health Organization and 2,000 other guests. A military choir sang the Marseillaise national anthem, and troops unfurled an enormous French tricolor flag across the plaza.

The battle against the virus was the main focus of the official Bastille Day event, as Macron sought to highlight France’s successes in combating its worst crisis since World War II. Mirage and Rafale fighter jets painted the sky with blue-white-and-red smoke, and were joined by helicopters that had transported COVID-19 patients in distress.

The guests included nurses, doctors, supermarket and nursing home workers, mask makers, lab technicians, undertakers and others who kept France going during its strict nationwide lockdown. Families of medical workers who died with the virus also had a place in the stands.

Medics in jeans or sandals strolled onto the plaza for the climax of the ceremony, and the lengthy military parade was truncated into a smaller affair closed to the public to prevent new virus infections.

In eastern Paris, meanwhile, medical workers’ unions marched to decry equipment and staff shortages that plagued public hospitals as the virus raced across France.

Other protesters chanted slogans against police violence, spoke out against racial injustice, or against Macron policies seen as favoring the wealthy, or against his decision to appoint a man accused of rape to oversee French police forces. Some protesters wore yellow vests, representing their movement against economic injustice.

Tensions erupted Monday night on the eve of Bastille Day, as troublemakers set off firecrackers and set a bus, a gym and dozens of vehicles on fire in the Paris region, according to the fire service.

In an interview with French television networks, Macron acknowledged “mistakes” in managing the virus pandemic and in pushing through business-friendly reforms earlier in his term.

He warned of “massive” unemployment and other economic problems still to come after months of virus lockdown, but announced no significant changes in policy for the remaining 22 months of his term.

He announced that masks would be required in indoor public places by Aug. 1 but that schools should resume as usual in September. France has one of the world’s highest virus death tolls, and scientists are warning of a potential resurgence as people abandon social distancing practices, hold dance parties and head off on summer vacations.

Masks were ubiquitous at the main Bastille Day ceremony. Troops sported them as they got in formation, took them off for the ceremony, then put them on again when it was over. Macron made a point of donning his before speaking to WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus.

Tuesday’s annual fireworks display over the Eiffel Tower will be largely restricted to television viewers only, since City Hall is closing off the heart of Paris, including embankments of the Seine and other neighborhoods where crowds usually gather on Bastille Day.

This year’s Bastille Day commemoration also paid homage to former President Charles de Gaulle, 80 years after the historic appeal he made to opponents of France’s Nazi occupiers that gave birth to the French Resistance.


Christophe Ena and Francois Mori in Paris contributed.

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