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France Marks Bastille Day Amid Military Cuts

  • Lisa Bryant

France observed its national holiday, Bastille Day, which it traditionally uses to showcase French military power with an annual parade down the Champs Elysees in Paris. But this year's July 14 celebrations come amid heightened tensions over cuts in defense spending and questions about whether France has the capacity to fulfill missions in Africa and elsewhere.

As in previous years, this year's Bastille Day began with a display of France's military muscle - on the air and on the ground - before the usual picnics, balls and fireworks.

Fighter jets streaked across the Paris sky - crossing the city in the space of seconds. This year marks the centenary anniversary of World War I.

Troops from dozens of countries who fought in the Great War marched in Monday's Bastille Day parade in Paris alongside French forces.

France has always placed high priority on its defense capabilities, including its nuclear arsenal. And France's military expenditure still ranks among the highest in the world. But the economy is still struggling and this year's Bastille Day also underscored fears of a weaker France.

In per capita terms, French defense spending is at its lowest level since 1960. The government has announced it will cut 7,500 defense jobs between now and next year - and more than 34,000 posts by 2019.

The cuts come as the United States has been urging European nations to spend more on defense, not less. They also come amid France's involvement in two peacekeeping operations in Africa - one in Mali and the other in Central African Republic.

On Sunday, French Defense Minister Jean Yves Le Drian announced the end of Operation Serval - the French military offensive against extremists in northern Mali. French troops will be redeployed to combat extremists in the larger Sahel region - which may be an even bigger challenge.

The reductions have sparked anger within the ranks and at the top of the military establishment. In an unprecedented move, the heads of France's air force, army and navy reportedly threatened to resign in May if further cuts were made. "Is France's military faced with "mission impossible?" asked the latest edition of the weekly Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

Former French defense minister Herve Morin added to the scathing criticism just hours before the Bastille Day parade.

In a radio interview Monday, Morin said the morale of France's military is at an all-time low. He predicted further spending cuts were likely - even as the world faced a myriad of threats, and countries like Russia and China were beefing up their military.

Polls show the majority of French don't want cuts in defense spending. The Bastille Day parade is over, but the questions and the grumbling over France's military and its future will likely continue for a long time to come.

Bastille Day commemorates the storming of the Bastille fortress in Paris on July 14, 1789, marking the beginning of the French Revolution.

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