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 unlike 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 lockdown. Families of medical workers who died with the virus also had a place in the stands.
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 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 police forces. Some protesters wore yellow vests, representing their movement against economic injustice — or face masks in the same neon shade.
In a television interview, Macron addressed the anger his presidency has unleashed, acknowledging “mistakes” in managing the pandemic and in pushing through business-friendly reforms.
He noted a new 8-billion-euro investment and hiring plan signed this week for hospitals, but warned of “massive” unemployment and other economic problems still to come after months of virus lockdown.