Bastille Day celebrations have been marked amid controversy in France, because of the presence of Syria’s leader (photo), along with dozens of other leaders to watch the Champs Elysees military parade.
The traditional march, going from the Arc de Triomphe down to Place de la Concorde, started with two units of UN blue helmets, and had Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, as guest of honour.
Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, was among the more than 40 leaders in attendance.
Opposition politicians, as well as some in the French military, who served in a UN peace force in Lebanon where the main power broker was for many years Syria, have been angered by the invitation by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, to Mr al-Assad.
Syria has been accused, by a group of French veterans, of being behind a 1983 bomb attack on a Beirut building, in which 58 French soldiers were killed, and said Mr al-Assad was not deserving of an invitation to France’s national fete.
Jean-Luc Hemar, head of the Association of Veterans from Camp Idron in central France, said that French soldiers should not file past al-Assad during the march down the Champs Elysees.
‘Cast a shadow’
“We feel uneasy about this”, he said, especially since some of the soldiers graduated from a military academy named in honour of one of the victims of the Drakkar bombing.
“Drakkar will cast a shadow over the 14th of July”, he added.
Bastille Day festivities were being “tainted by controversy” over Mr al-Assad’s presence, said Francois Hollande, the opposition Socialist leader, for celebrations marking the storming of the Bastille in 1789 at the start of the French Revolution.
But on Sunday, the French president defended his decision, saying that it was not Syria, but the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah, who carried out the 1983 lorry bombing of the Drakkar building in Beirut.
Last month, France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said he was “not particularly pleased” by Mr al-Assad’s presence at the national fete.
Former French president, Jacques Chirac, was conspicuous by his absence from the event. Although it has been denied by officials that Mr Chirac’s decision to stay away was linked to Mr al-Assad, he is the French president who cut off high-level ties with Bashar al-Assad over the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and a close personal friend.
On Monday, Ingrid Betancourt, 40, the freed French-Colombian hostage, has been honored by president Sarkozy during the garden party, with France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor. The president said that other hostages around the world must still be freed.