PARIS — First came dozens of French soldiers in historical uniforms who rode into the Place de la Concorde square on horseback. Then French President Emmanuel Macron arrived at the Bastille Day parade viewing stage Friday, riding in a military jeep as if it were a chariot.
A military band struck up and vintage tanks and other military equipment began rolling into the square as a video shot in action-movie style explained the technological advances France has made since World War I.
Suddenly, nine fighter jets roared past overhead, leaving a trail of red, white and blue smoke — representing the French tricolor flag — and 200 marchers wearing American World War I uniforms marched along with hundreds of French military personnel.
Watching it all with Macron was President Trump, who made a last-minute trip to Paris this week to witness the grand military parade of France’s Bastille Day, which this year included a tribute to the centennial anniversary of the United States entering World War I.
Even from a distance, the president could be seen eagerly leaning forward in his seat of honor and gesturing to his wife or Macron as each new spectacle came forth. During short lulls, Trump would pull Macron in for a conversation.
Trump has long been fascinated by the military and had hoped to have a similar parade to celebrate his inauguration in January, but he was prevented from doing so.
Macron has been sharply criticized across the political spectrum in France for honoring Trump with this visit, as the U.S. president is deeply unpopular in France. A Pew Research Center poll recently found that only 14 percent of people say they have confidence in Trump.
Yet the president was largely shielded from any dissent and from a “Don’t Let Your Guard Down Against Trump” protest march that started more than a mile away from where he sat.
“Donald Trump? I don’t like it. I don’t understand why he’s here,” said one of the spectators to the military march, Riad Jhops, 33, an Algerian living in Drancy, a Paris suburb, and who works for an Algerian aluminum company. “He says he has a problem with our climate treaty, and then he comes for the 14th of July.”
He added that Trump’s policies and world view is particularly worrisome to Muslims. “Too hard, too hard,” he said on the prospects of many Muslims accepting Trump.
Michel Viotti, who works in home decoration in provincial Arles, attended the parade for the first time this year.
“My son’s in the military, so it means something to me,” said Viotti, 58. “It’s good that France is recognizing the U.S. for their help during the war. I’ve visited the American cemetery in Normandy and think everyone should.”
The parade marks the end of Trump’s whirlwind 27-hour visit to the City of Light, which included meeting with U.S. troops based in Europe, a visit Napoleon’s tomb, talks with Macron and his staff, a news conference and dinner at an opulent restaurant in the Eiffel Tower.
Trump and Macron are political outsiders in the early months of their presidencies, and their relationship up until now has been defined by public confrontations. Both leaders said they are committed to finding areas of agreement and developing a productive relationship. Both highlighted the generations-long friendship between the two nations, especially when it comes to national security.
Although Trump repeatedly slammed Paris on the campaign trail — describing it as dangerous and crime-ridden because of an influx of immigrants — he said on Thursday that his view has changed now that Macron is in office and that he looks forward to returning to Paris.
Paris law enforcement officials had planned for heightened security on Bastille Day after a terrorist last year drove a truck through a crowd that had just watched a fireworks display in the seaside city of Nice in southern France, killing 86.
After the parade, Macron plans to travel to Nice to remember those who were killed. Trump will return to the United States on Friday afternoon, arriving home in time for the start of the weekend.
Compared with the violent demonstrations of thousands in Hamburg last week for the Group of 20 summit — when anti-capitalist protesters converged at a meeting of the world’s largest economies — Paris was relatively calm after the arrival of Trump.
For some, the relatively muted reaction mirrored the indifference that characterized the general French response to the administration of George W. Bush. At the time, the French government opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but French citizens did not mobilize massive protests against Bush during his visits to Paris.
President Trump is arguably more unpopular in France than Bush. There were small-scale demonstrations Friday in the Place de la République, where piñatas of the American president were hung, and in the Place des États-Unis, where Democrats Abroad staged a protest against Trump’s policies.
“This was not a protest of the fact that Donald Trump came to Paris,” said one of the Democrats Abroad organizers, Sally Swartz. “It was to show that the Democrats are alive and well and that we actively oppose the policies and the bills he’s trying to get through Congress.”