France has staged its annual Bastille Day parade, amid criticism at the presence of some African leaders.
Armies from former colonies celebrating 50 years of independence were invited to join the military parade.
A human rights group has said that some of the troops and leaders should instead be facing trial for war crimes.
Critics also said the move gave the false impression that France granted them independence, when many fought against French rule.
The government has strenuously denied the claims.
Heads of state and troops from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Chad and Togo watched from the official stand.
Ivory Coast was represented by a government minister, but did not take part in the march-past.
The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH), an umbrella group for human rights organisations around the world, wrote to President Sarkozy to say it was "seriously concerned that certain countries' delegations... may contain people responsible for grave human rights violations."
The letter added: "It would be no small paradox that during a celebration of the values of the Republic, these values should be flouted by the presence of torturers, dictators and other predators of human rights, and that instead of pursuing them, France honours them."
Danyel Dubreuil, of campaign group Survie, said he was concerned soldiers who had been part of the Cobra militia in the civil war in Congo-Brazzaville - in which thousands of civilians were killed - were taking part in the parade.
A Gabonese activist, Marc Ona, compared African leaders at the parade to "colonial governors who find themselves together with chief colonialist Nicolas Sarkozy to celebrate keeping Africa in international penury".
However, Mr Sarkozy has strenuously denied being guilty of "colonial nostalgia", and said the African troops who attended the parade were a testament to the "strength of the ties" that united France and its former colonies.
Defence Minister Herve Morin told France Info radio that France had no indication that war criminals were present among the African units.
"These are countries with whom we have relations, partnerships. I don't see the sense in putting ourselves on trial over these questions," he said.
The storming of the Bastille in 1789 is viewed symbolically as the birth of the modern French republic.
In recent times, it has become customary to invite foreign units to march in the parade - in 2004, British troops led the parade to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale.