First ladies including Cameroon's Chantal Biya and France's Carla Bruni watched the parade [Reuters]
France has staged its traditional Bastille Day parade amid criticism from human rights groups at the invitation of some African leaders.
Soldiers from 13 African nations marched through Paris on Wednesday to mark 50 years of independence from French colonial rule.
Protesters denounced France's ties to its former colonies in a demonstration on the eve of the parade, condemning some of the African leaders invited to the ceremony of committing atrocities.
"We are scandalised by the presence on the official stand, among the heads of state invited by [French president] Nicolas Sarkozy, of dictators who fire
on their own people," Odile Tobner of Survie, one of the groups leading the protest, said.
Rights groups were angered by the presence of countries such as Niger, where a military government took power in a coup five months ago and where French nuclear firm Areva has lucrative uranium mining contracts.
But Sarkozy insisted the parade was not about colonial "nostalgia" during an address to the African leaders on Tuesday.
"I know very well the notion of privileged and special relations, this flood of suspicions and fantasies, but the time has come to face up to it together, without inhibitions and without looking back," he said.
Herve Morin, the defence minister, also dismissed the criticism, saying there was "no indication" that there were war criminals among Sarkozy's guests.
About 12 African heads of state attended the parade along with Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni.
The parade saw fighter jets fly over the city, followed by African troops marching down the Champs Elysees avenue, headed by an all-female unit from Benin.
They were followed by French troops, firemen, police, armoured vehicles and marching bands.
The heads of state from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Chad and Togo sat watching from the official stand.
Ivory Coast was represented by a government minister but did not take part in the march. Forces from Madagascar also joined the parade.
Bastille day is an annual French holiday that marks the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, signalling the start of the French Revolution.