President Sarkozy has strongly denied being guilty of “colonial nostalgia” by inviting African leaders and troops to the Bastille Day parade.
He said the soldiers from 13 African countries were a testament to the “strength of the ties” between France and its former colonies.
Human rights groups have described leaders from countries such as Chad, Togo, Cameroon, Gabon and Burkina Faso as “dictators”. They also said that some of the troops on parade had “blood on their hands” for having taken part in “massacres of their own people”.
But Mali’s leader Amadou Toumani Touré – whose country is not among those implicated – said it was an honour to be present in Paris.
“I would like to rejoice at this occasion that France has given us, by allowing us the honour of attending the 14th July parade – and above all to put on parade our troops who are the heirs of yesterday’s black soldiers who took part in France’s great wars,” he said.
The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH), an umbrella group for worldwide human rights organisations, has called on France to reveal who was present in the foreign delegations.
“My question is: are these people who are here potentially the subject of legal proceedings for serious offences. And to that the French government’s response is silence,” said Michel Tubiana, president of the French branch of the FIDH.
As hundreds of human rights activists demonstrated in Paris before the parade, the Elysee said no-one the law was interested in was taking part. The French Defence Minister Hervé Morin went on the radio to say that there was “no indication” that any war criminals were present.