Troops from 13 African nations marched in Paris Wednesday at the annual Bastille Day celebrations, marking half a century of independence from colonial rule. Their participation has drawn fire from human rights and pressure groups.
Notwithstanding the rain which literally, if not metaphorically, poured on the parade, France marked its annual Bastille Day commemorations Wednesday with pomp, ceremony and carefully choreographed military displays. However, there will be no traditional presidential palace garden party in a nod to the austerity measures being enforced by the French government.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the salute during the traditional military parade down the majestic Champs Elysees in the heart of Paris, as troops from 13 former French African countries joined their French counterparts in the march.
The invitations to take part mark the 50th anniversary of independence for the former French colonies, and is also in recognition of the role troops from French colonies played in fighting for France during the two World Wars.
Undaunted by the pouring rain, crowds lined the Champs Elysee as military units, along with an array of tanks and military hardware, swept down the avenue from the Arc de Triomphe, the iconic monument commemorating all those who fought for France, to the Place de la Concorde, from where Sarkozy, accompanied by this year’s guests of honour, watched the parade.
This year’s guests of honour included the leaders of the 12 former French colonies. Ivory Coast's defence minister attended in place of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, while the disputed leader of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, was not invited. Malagasy troops however, joined the parade.
Bastille Day marks the storming of the Bastille on the 14th of July, 1789, an event that heralded the start of the French Revolution.
For Sarkozy, the national holiday followed a tumultuous week that saw the French president take to the airwaves Monday for a special prime-time interview to address a growing political donations scandal.
Sarkozy is battling record low approval ratings and an uphill struggle to institute a controversial pension reform plan which will raise the retirement age for public sector workers from 60 to 62. The pension reform is proving particularly unpopular, and Sarkozy is now on a collision course with France’s powerful trade unions.
Furthmore, an expenses scandal earlier this month resulted in the dismissal of two junior ministers and proved particularly embarrassing for Sarkozy as he tries to implement austerity measures.
Accusations of colonial nostalgia
This year, the French president scrapped the traditionally lavish garden party at the Elysee presidential palace. But the ceremonies were not without controversy.
Protestors along the Champs Elysee Wednesday denounced "Francafrique" - a term referring to a perceived tradition of shady official and business ties between France and its former colonies, some of which are dictatorships.
The Africa commemoration ceremony has been attacked as cynical and tactless by some observers who see it as an unseemly display of France's continuing interference in Africa.
In the lead-up to the Bastille Day commemorations, Sarkozy was forced to defend himself against accusations that, by emphasising France's role in the events of 1960, he was indulging in an unpalatable form of "colonial nostalgia".
"This is a complete misinterpretation," said the president, stressing the "injustices and errors" of the colonial era at a lunch for the heads of state of 12 former colonies. "The aim of this meeting is therefore not to celebrate your independence – you can do that very well yourself," he added. "It is to celebrate the strength of the links which history has woven between our peoples. And the strength of this meeting is to build together our future."
Human rights groups have also warned that some of the African troops participating in the military parade may be war criminals, and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) has called on the French authorities to publish the names of the soldiers taking part.
In an open letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the FIDH said it was, “gravely concerned that some countries’ contingents … may include individuals responsible for serious human rights violations.”
Thimonier Olivier, head of “Survie” (Survival), which lobbies for the redrawing of the French-African relationship, said he was upset by the possibility that “troops who may have committed serious crimes in their own countries could come to France to celebrate a date which is a symbol of freedom”.
Date created : 2010-07-14