PARIS (AP) — Soldiers carrying the flags of 76 countries marched Monday down the Champs-Elysees in Paris, as France's traditional Bastille Day military parade commemorated the centenary of World War I.
France invited all countries that were involved on the battlefields — former allies and enemies, former colonizers and colonies, participating altogether in the ceremony as a symbol of peace.
"Ten million soldiers were killed or died of their injuries on countless battlefields. We owe them gratitude," President Francois Hollande said in a message ahead of the march.
The message took on special meaning amid renewed violence in Gaza and Iraq, and as French troops fight extremists in Africa.
MARCH OF MEMORY
Three soldiers of each of the 76 countries marched along the cobblestones in their national dress uniform.
Surrounding them were rows of French troops in sky-blue period uniforms of the "Poilus," the name given to French infantrymen of World War I.
The ceremony echoed the first celebration of Bastille Day after the end of what was then known as "The Great War," in 1919. "The war's wounded were at the forefront of the parade in their wheelchairs ... We celebrated the greatness of the French military by putting first the most visible victims," recalled historian Antoine Prost.
A French army choir interpreted two popular songs of the Poilus — one telling the story of soldiers flirting with a pretty waitress in a tavern — before raising their voices in the national anthem, "La Marseillaise."
While young people from all invited countries closed Monday's ceremony with a peace dance and a release of doves, the annual event is also about demonstrating France's military might.
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