France celebrates virus heroes on redesigned Bastille Day

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PARIS (AP) – Ambulance drivers, supermarket cashiers, postal workers. Medics who died fighting COVID-19. France is honoring them all on its biggest national holiday Tuesday, recalibrating Bastille Day’s usual grandiose military parade to celebrate heroes of the coronavirus pandemic instead.

This years’ commemoration is also paying homage to former President Charles de Gaulle, 80 years after the historic appeal he made to opponents of France’s Nazi occupiers that gave birth to the French Resistance.

But the battle against the virus, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives in France, is the main focus of the official event in central Paris, as President Emmanuel Macron seeks to highlight France’s successes in combating its worst crisis since World War II.

“This ceremony will be the symbol of the commitment of an entire nation,” Macron said in a speech to military officials Monday. “It will also be the symbol of our resilience.”

Across town from the the Place de la Concorde, protesters plan to highlight France’s failures during the pandemic. Among those expected to demonstrate are medical workers who decried mask shortages and cost cuts that left one of the world’s best health care systems ill-prepared for the galloping spread of the virus.

The destination of their protest march wasn’t chosen by chance: They’re set to head to Bastille plaza, the former home of a royal prison that rebels stormed on July 14, 1789, symbolically marking the beginning of the French Revolution.

Tensions already erupted Monday night on the eve of the holiday, as troublemakers set off firecrackers and set a bus, a gym and dozens of vehicles on fire in the Paris region, according to the fire service.

At Tuesday’s main ceremony, fighter jets will paint the sky with blue-white-and-red smoke and will be joined by helicopters that transported COVID-19 patients in distress. A military band will sing the Marseillaise national anthem to 2,000 special guests.

This year, instead of world leaders or other dignitaries, those guests are nurses, doctors, supermarket and nursing home workers, mask makers, lab technicians and others who kept France going during its strict nationwide lockdown. Families of medical workers who died with the virus also have a place in the stands.

“Exceptionally, this year, our armies … will cede the primary place to the women and men in hospital coats who fought” the virus and who remain “ramparts in the crisis,” Macron said.

He hailed the French military for building a field hospital and carrying patients in cargo jets or specially fitted high-speed trains, and paid tribute to the volunteers who allowed “our nation to hold on.”

Ordinary French citizens aren’t able to honor front-line workers in person, however, because the Paris ceremony is closed to the public, to prevent new virus infections spreading on the holiday. And the usual military parade down the Champs-Elysees is being truncated to a smaller affair.

Even the annual fireworks display over the Eiffel Tower will be largely restricted to television viewers only, since City Hall is closing off the heart of Paris, including embankments of the Seine and other neighborhoods where crowds usually gather on Bastille Day.

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.

A firefighter wears a face mask with the colors of the French flag, prior to the Bastille Day parade Tuesday, July 14, 2020 on the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris. France are honoring nurses, ambulance drivers, supermarket cashiers and others on its biggest national holiday Tuesday. Bastille Day’s usual grandiose military parade in Paris is being redesigned this year to celebrate heroes of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, Pool)
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