PARIS — 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 a protest across town, the national homage wasn’t nearly enough to make up for missteps by French President Emmanuel Macron and his government before and during the coronavirus pandemic. Riot police sprayed tear gas and unruly demonstrators hurled smoke bombs as the largely peaceful demonstrators marched 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 in their honor 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, 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 years of cost cuts that left public hospitals ill-prepared when the virus raced across France.
“We are enormously short of personnel,” said protester Sylvie Pecard, a nurse at the Saint-Louis Hospital in Paris who described colleagues falling ill with the virus as COVID-19 patients filled its wards. “It’s because we haven’t recruited nurses. I came here 20 years ago and there were no empty positions. Now all the services are short of personnel, and it’s worse and worse.”
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 — or face masks in the same neon yellow shade.
Riot police closely surrounded the crowd, and smoke from tear gas and firecrackers swirled around Bastille Plaza after sporadic tensions.
Demonstrators sang in support of medical workers, while the Bastille Opera house displayed a huge message of thanks surrounded by portraits of nurses and doctors by street artist JR.
In an interview with French television networks, Macron addressed the anger his presidency has unleashed, acknowledging “mistakes” in managing the pandemic and in pushing through business-friendly reforms.
“Our country is afraid. There is a crisis of trust,” he said.
He noted a new 8-billion-euro investment and hiring plan signed this week for French hospitals, but warned of “massive” unemployment and other economic problems still to come after months of virus lockdown. He announced no significant policy changes for the remaining 22 months of his term.
He said 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.
At the main Bastille Day event, troops sported masks 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. One government member panicked when she realized she forgot hers, but was saved by a colleague with a spare.
All around France, towns and cities scaled back holiday festivities to stem virus infections. For Tuesday’s annual fireworks display over the Eiffel Tower, City Hall is closing off the heart of Paris, including embankments of the Seine and other neighborhoods where crowds usually gather on Bastille Day.
Jeffrey Schaeffer, Christophe Ena and Francois Mori contributed to this report.