France honours coronavirus heroes at revamped Bastille Day

French national day replaces traditional crowded military parades with celebration of pandemic's essential workers, from medics to supermarket staff

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France held a scaled-down Bastille Day celebration on Tuesday, with some of the military displays repurposed to celebrate today's heroes of the coronavirus pandemic instead of its revolutionary past.

Fighter jets painted the Paris sky with blue, white and red smoke, while aircraft that transported coronavirus patients also took to the air over the French capital.

Ambulance drivers, supermarket cashiers, postal workers and medics were among the Covid-19 heroes honoured, while grieving relatives of healthcare workers who died from the virus were in the VIP parade stands.

Mostly gone was the usual parade of tanks and troops along the capital's Champs Elysees avenue, in a concession to the outbreak still stalking Europe.

Bastille Day is the country’s biggest national holiday, dating to the 1789 revolution when citizens stormed the Bastille fortress, which was a symbol of the harsh rule of the French monarchy and aristocracy.

This year’s socially distanced commemorations also paid respects to former president Charles de Gaulle, 80 years after the historic appeal in the Second World War that gave birth to the French Resistance movement.

"I wish, with all the French, with the armies themselves, to pay a vibrant tribute to health workers and those who, in all sectors, have enabled public, social and economic life to continue," President Emmanuel Macron said in message released before the parade.

"The dedication, tenacity, courage, solidarity that emerged strongly everywhere, in our cities as in our countryside, command admiration."

The helicopter flyover honoured Operation Resilience, the country's pandemic response launched by Mr Macron in March to muster France's armed forces into helping civilian medical and logistical efforts. Resilience forces also built a military field hospital in eastern France.

Spectators – apart from 2,500 guests sitting on sparsely filled viewing benches – were not allowed near Place de la Concorde, Paris's largest square, to avoid the spread of the disease that has killed at least 30,000 people in France.

Mr Macron's critics accused him of underestimating and then mishandling the pandemic, and his party was beaten in local elections last month.

Since then, the president has brought in a new prime minister, reshuffled his Cabinet and the government has agreed to pay rises worth €8 billion (Dh33bn) for health workers.

Traditionally, the national holiday is rounded off by a fireworks display, with thousands of people gathering around the Eiffel Tower to watch.

The fireworks will go ahead this year, but the parkland around the tower will be closed to the public.

Only a handful of tanks and other military equipment were on display this year, and Mr Macron, standing in the back of a military jeep, review socially distanced troops in Place de la Concorde.