French special forces involved in anti-terrorism operations were given a prominent role in the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris on Wednesday.
Thousands of troops participated in a parade on the Champs-Elysee as France marked its national holiday. Last year’s celebrations were scaled back owing to the pandemic.
About 80 members of French and European special forces drawn from the multinational Takuba Task Force in the Sahel region led the procession on foot.
It was a diplomatic message from Paris after French President Emmanuel Macron, who presided over the ceremony, announced a major withdrawal of French troops from the Sahel region last month.
He is banking on his often reluctant European partners sending more troops to replace them.
Paris wants the task force, which currently comprises 600 troops, half of them French, to take over more responsibilities from the 5,100 soldiers involved in France's Operation Barkhane, which was launched about seven years ago to tackle extremist groups in the Sahel.
The parade took place under grey skies and light rain, and was a smaller version of the traditional event, with only 10,000 spectators instead of the 25,000 who would normally be expected.
Attendance was limited and spectators were restricted to a small section of the parade.
They also had to show a special pass that proved they had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, had recently recovered from the disease or tested negative.
In a special moment before the parade started, a trainee soldier proposed to his girlfriend, to the delight of onlookers.
The soldier was dressed in ceremonial uniform and a video of his proposal was posted on the army's Twitter account.
"Everything is possible for our soldiers on the day of the #NationalDay. All our congratulations," the army tweeted.
Spectators came from across France, even if Covid-19 restrictions and long queues for security checks caused frustration.
“I came especially for my son, who is marching today,” said Gaelle Henry, a resident of the northern city of Lille.
“It’s nice to be able to get out a little bit and finally get some fresh air and think that we are getting back to normal a little bit.”
A total of 73 warplanes, medical helicopters and other aircraft flew over the Paris region.
“This moment of conviviality, of reunion, on the eve of our National Day, is first and foremost for us the opportunity to address our brothers in arms and their families, and give them a message of gratitude,” Mr Macron said on Tuesday.
Last year’s parade was replaced by a static ceremony to honour healthcare workers who died fighting against Covid-19.
More than 111,000 people in France have died from Covid-19 and the government is pushing hard to increase the vaccination rate to curb a surge in infections driven by the Delta variant.
Bastille Day marks the storming of Bastille prison in eastern Paris on July 14, 1789, a significant moment in the French Revolution.