France's traditional Bastille Day military march had a new set of participants this year. Troops from 13 African nations joined the parade, and heads of state from the African nations were invited to attend the ceremony.
Soldiers marched past Sarkozy and African leaders at Place de la Concorde in Paris
Troops from 13 African nations joined France's traditional Bastille Day military march on Wednesday in Paris, as their heads of state watched alongside President Nicolas Sarkozy.
An all-female unit of troops from Benin led the annual parade. They were followed by troops from 12 other African nations, French soldiers, firefighters, police officers and marching bands.
The participants marched through the rain with rifles and bayonets at their shoulders, marking the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. The celebration of the storming of the Bastille prison is a national holiday and an annual display of French military power.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the end of French colonial rule for the 13 African nations, which include Cameroon, Gabon, Mali, Chad and Togo. The march also commemorates African troops who fought for France during the World Wars.
"It is a blood tie that we are celebrating," said Sarkozy, "the tie born of African troops' contribution to the defense and liberation of France."
Including the African troops in the celebration, however, and inviting the leaders of those African countries, has caused some controversy.
Questionable guest list
Niger's flag flew from the boot of this paratrooper
Human rights organizations condemned Sarkozy's decision to invite heads of state from countries that are seen to have abused human rights. Niger, for example, saw its government overthrown by a military junta five months ago.
"We are scandalized by the presence on the official stand, among the heads of state invited by Nicolas Sarkozy, of dictators who fire on their own people," said Odile Tobner of Survie, one of the organizations involved in the protest.
Protestors also complained that part of the reason the African nations are involved in the festivities is due to the fact that France still maintains questionable business ties to dictatorial African governments.
Sarkozy said the parade was not about looking back to "better days" of colonialism.
"I know very well the notion of privileged and special relations, this flood of suspicions and fantasies," he said. "But the time has come to face up to it together, without inhibitions and without looking back."
Author: Matt Zuvela (AFP/dpa)
Editor: Martin Kuebler