France is recalibrating Bastille Day’s usual grandiose military parade to celebrate heroes of the coronavirus pandemic instead.
Ambulance drivers, supermarket cashiers, postal workers as well as frontline medics who died fighting Covid-19 are all being honoured on the country’s biggest national holiday.
This year’s commemorations will also pay homage to former president Charles de Gaulle, eight decades after the historic appeal he made to opponents of France’s Nazi occupiers which gave birth to the French Resistance.
But the battle against the virus, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives in France, is expected to be 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 the Second World War.
“This ceremony will be the symbol of the commitment of an entire nation,” Mr Macron said in a speech to military officials on Monday. “It will also be the symbol of our resilience.”
Across town from the Place de la Concorde, protesters plan to highlight France’s failures during the pandemic.
Medical workers and others who decried mask shortages and cost cuts which left one of the world’s best healthcare systems ill-prepared for the galloping spread of the virus are expected to demonstrate.
The destination of their protest march was not chosen by chance – they are 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.
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 play the Marseillaise national anthem to 2,000 special guests.
This year, instead of world leaders or other dignitaries, those guests will be 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”, Mr 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 will not be able to honour frontline workers in person, however, because the Paris ceremony is closed to the public, to prevent new virus infections.
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 neighbourhoods 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.