PARIS (AFP) — France celebrated Bastille Day on Monday under a cloud of controversy as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad joined dozens of leaders to watch the traditional military parade on the Champs Elysees.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was the guest of honour at the festivities with two units of UN peacekeepers leading off the march from Paris' Arc de Triomphe down to Place de la Concorde.
But President Nicolas Sarkozy's invitation to Assad has angered opposition politicians and some in the French military who served in a UN peace force in Lebanon, where Syria for years was the main power broker.
Making a diplomatic comeback after years of ostracism, Assad was among the more than 40 leaders who Sunday inaugurated the new Mediterranean union, Sarkozy's flagship project to bolster cooperation between Europe, the Middle East and north Africa.
The parade in central Paris was also held amid unease in army ranks over Sarkozy's plans to slash more than 50,000 defence jobs and shut down dozens of bases.
Sarkozy also raised hackles in the military after he attacked the army top brass over an accidental shooting at an army display late last month, which prompted the resignation of the army chief of staff.
Leading his second national day festivities since taking office, Sarkozy waved to the crowd from an open-top military vehicle before taking place at the dais, where he was joined by Assad and, standing some distance away, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The president paid a pointed tribute to the French army afterwards, telling France 2 television, "I am very proud of this parade, very proud of the French army. The army put on a remarkable display."
After watching a fly-past of Alphajets that left a trail of red, white and blue, Sarkozy, first lady Carla Bruni and guests watched the parade of some 4,000 marching soldiers and police, 65 aircraft and 241 mounted horsemen.
French actor Kad Merad, star of the record-breaking box-office comedy "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis", read from the universal declaration of rights that was adopted in the 1789 French Revolution.
In a first, eight paratroopers rounded out the parade with a jump in red-white-and-blue parachutes adorned with UN flags, landing on Place de la Concorde amid applause.
Assad's presence angered a group of French veterans who accuse Syria of being behind a 1983 bomb attack in Beirut that killed 58 French soldiers.
Veterans say Assad is not deserving of an invitation to France's national fete, which celebrates human rights by marking the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 at the start of the revolution.
Opposition Socialist leader Francois Hollande said the festivities were "tainted" by the presence of Assad, whose regime is seen by rights groups as one of the most repressive in the Arab world.
Human rights campaigner Robert Menard, who heads Reporters Without Borders (RSF), was briefly detained by police after leading a protest in which about a dozen demonstrators shouted "Freedom for Syria."
Fifteen campaigners from the Act-Up AIDS campaign group were arrested for trying to stage a gay rights protest outside the Syrian embassy, they said.
The French presidency defended the decision to invite Assad, saying the truck-bombing of the Drakkar building in Beirut was carried out by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and not Syria.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner last month commented that he was "not particularly pleased" by Assad's presence at the fete.
Former president Jacques Chirac, who cut off high-level ties with Assad over the 2005 assassination of close friend former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, chose not to attend, though officials denied this was linked to Assad.
Sarkozy later awarded the Legion of Honour, France's highest distinction, to Colombian former hostage Ingrid Betancourt, nearly two weeks after she was rescued from rebel captivity.
At an Elysee palace garden party, Sarkozy presented the insignia to Betancourt, who dedicated it to her "companions in misfortune," present and past hostages of Colombia's FARC rebels.
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