Mideast rivals join Sarkozy at Bastille Day parade

France celebrated its national holiday Bastille Day on Monday with celebrations marked by the presence of Mideast leaders, including bitter enemies, on the same stage.

France celebrated its national holiday Bastille Day on Monday with celebrations marked by the presence of Mideast leaders, including bitter enemies, sharing the same stage to observe the festivities.

Military jets perform a flypast with the French national colours during Bastille day ceremonies in Paris on Monday. ((Thibault Camus/Associated Press))
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was joined by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as more than a dozen other leaders on the official parade grandstand in Paris along the Champs-Elysées.

The event marks the day 219 years ago when outraged Parisians hoping to capture ammunition stormed the fortress and prison where prisoners of influence were held, triggering the French Revolution.

Columns of French troops in their finery marched down the famed tree-lined street, and jets trailing smoke of red, white and blue streaked across the skies above the Arc de Triomphe.

Monday's official festivities also underscored France's recent efforts to improve relations with Mideast nations and bolster ongoing peace negotiations.

The leaders had stayed over following a summit Sunday that launched an unprecedented Union for the Mediterranean, a brainchild of Sarkozy's aimed at securing peace across the restive region.

Onstage, Assad turned away to speak to his interpreter when the Israeli leader approached him.

Israel and Syria, who technically have remained in a state of war with each other since the Six-Day War in 1967, have been holding peace talks in recent weeks with Turkey serving as an intermediary.

Assad's presence sparks furor

Assad's back-to-back invitations from Sarkozy to the summit and the parade appear to have marked an end to Syria's diplomatic isolation in France.

But many in France are outraged that Assad — who stands accused of trampling human rights in his own country and facilitating violence and chaos in neighbouring Lebanon, a French ally — was invited to Bastille Day festivities.

Among them are groups representing France's veterans, who hold Syria responsible for the deaths of 58 French paratroopers in a 1983 bomb attack on a Beirut barracks housing peacekeepers.

Assad receives few invitations from the West, where the British-educated former eye surgeon is viewed as a pariah allied with Iran and a supporter of militant groups including Hamas and Hezbollah.

Syria is also accused of involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, where disputes in Parliament between pro-Syrian politicians and the Western-backed government often threaten to spill out into violence in the streets.

Former French president Jacques Chirac — a close friend of Hariri's — bitterly condemned the welcome offered by Sarkozy, while the French opposition decried the inclusion of a dictator at a celebration of human rights.

With files from the Associated Press