Emmanuel Macron presided over a show of European force at France’s annual Bastille Day military parade on Sunday, calling for a “Europe of defence” alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders from the continent.
The French president has argued for greater military co-operation in the bloc as the US cannot be relied upon to guarantee security under Donald Trump.
Three British Chinook helicopters and a Eurofighter were among more than 100 aircraft from 10 EU countries that flew over Paris as soldiers, police and firefighters marched down the iconic Champs-Elysées avenue.
German, Spanish, Portuguese and Finnish soldiers also took part.
Theresa May was represented by the Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, her de facto deputy, after she cancelled a plan to attend.
“Never, since the end of the Second World War, has Europe been so important,” Mr Macron said in a statement issued to mark July 14, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille fortress and prison by revolutionary forces in 1789.
“The construction of a Europe of defence, in connection with the Atlantic Alliance ... is a priority for France. It is the theme of this parade,” Mr Macron said.
The centrist French president has promoted the European Intervention Initiative as a step towards the “true European army” which he says is needed.
The aim of the 10-country grouping is to undertake military missions outside existing structures such as Nato.
“Acting together and strengthening our ability to act collectively is one of the challenges that the European Intervention Initiative, along with other key European projects, wants to address,” Mr Macron said. He is maintaining his policy of tightening European defence cooperation despite Brexit, political turbulence in Germany and his recent disagreements with Ms Merkel over the nomination of senior EU officials.
“Our security and our defence pass through Europe,” he said.
Those who attended the parade and a lunch at the Elysée Palace included Charles Michels, the Belgian prime minister and president-elect of the European Council, Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of Nato, Jean-Pierre Juncker, the outgoing president of the European Commission and Anti Rinne, prime minister of Finland.
Mr Macron stood in an open-top command car as he inspected the forces and waved to crowds of spectators.
There was no rain despite overcast skies but the president was jeered by “yellow vest” protesters whose weekly, often violent demonstrations appeared on the verge of toppling his government during the winter.
The protests have since dwindled and Mr Macron’s approval ratings have risen, but he is now facing renewed accusations of elitism and cronyism following revelations of his environment minister’s extravagant lifestyle, funded by French taxpayers.
Police detained at least 150 protesters on Sunday including two prominent members of the “yellow vest” movement.
Mr Macron has so far held off sacking Francois de Rugy despite mounting anger over reports he hosted opulent lobster and £500-a-bottle vintage wines.
A high point of the festivities was a demonstration of a futuristic “flyboard” by Franky Zapata, a French inventor and entrepreneur, who soared over the assembled leaders on the Champs-Elysées.
Some 5,000 police were deployed across France amid painful memories of the 2016 Bastille Day terror attack in Nice and accusations that lax security had left families vulnerable.
The famed Fouquet’s restaurant on the grand avenue, trashed by the “yellow vests” in March, reopened on Sunday.