Paris: A proud detachment of Indian troops on Tuesday led thousands of French comrades down the Champs Elysees in Paris for the annual military parade to mark the Bastille Day national holiday.
The 400 soldiers filed down the elegant venue under the eyes of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, invited by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to mark France’s strategic relationship with the world’s biggest democracy.
Dressed in ceremonial uniforms of red and black headdress, cummerbunds and white putees and gloves, the Indians marched from the Arc de Triomphe to the presidential stand at the end of the 1.5-kilometre (one mile) parade.
Drawn from the Army, Navy and the Air Force, the contingent paraded to the sound of Indian martial music played by a 90-member band in a ceremony shown live by all Indian television news channels.
French Air Force jets flew overhead, releasing trails of red, white and blue smoke to represent the colours of the French flag, and the parade came to a close with parachutists floating down on to the Place des Invalides.
Singh and Sarkozy were joined in the presidential stand by the French President’s pop star wife Carla Bruni, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, German President Horst Koehler and other dignitaries.
After watching the parade Sarkozy and his wife went among the huge crowds to shake hands and chat with members of the public before heading back to the presidential Elysee palace for the traditional garden party.
Inviting Indian soldiers to take part in the Bastille Day march for the first time shows that Paris wants to emphasize its close relations with India.
France is one of the key arms suppliers to the Indian military, and French firm Areva has signed a draft accord for the sale of up to six nuclear reactors to the country.
Among the French soldiers marching in the Bastille Day parade, units who have recently returned from operations abroad - in places like Afghanistan, Kosovo and Lebanon - were given prominent positions.
The Bastille Day march has been held under heightened security since an attempted attack on president Jacques Chirac in 2002.
It is held each year on 14 July, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille fortress in Paris by revolutionaries in 1789, the symbolic starting point of the movement that led to the first French republic.
Celebrations are held across the country, with the biggest event this year likely to be a free concert by French rock icon Johnny Hallyday at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Up to 800,000 people were expected at the gig on the Champ de Mars park, which will close with a fireworks display to mark the 120th anniversary of the tower, police said.
Bastille Day has also become an occasion for disaffected youths from bleak suburban housing projects to express their frustration with high unemployment rates and what they see as France’s failure to integrate ethnic minorities.
They burned 317 vehicles and wounded 13 police officers overnight across the country on the eve of the national holiday, police said on Tuesday.
By 6:00 am (0400 GMT), police headquarters in Paris had recorded 317 burnt out cars - up 6.7% on 2008 - and 240 arrests, almost double the total for the same period last year.
These numbers were expected to increase as fresh reports came in.