The Paris Carnival: Tradition, Disguises, and Diversity

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Carnival is in full swing in various parts of the world. Here in France, sure we might think about people in sparkly, feather-laden costumes dancing down the streets of Rio, or mysterious, masked revelers gliding along Venetian canals. But we’ve also got our own traditional Carnival celebrations. Among the most famous is the Dunkirk Carnival — as well as a number of smaller carnivals that take place in northern France over the course of a month or two.

These carnivals stand out from their brethren in some unexpected ways. For one thing, they’re much more down-to-earth; participants’ clearly homemade costumes vie for attention with the marchers’. And those costumes don’t strive to be flashy, sexy, or mysterious, but…funny.

It’s always surprised me that, while we generally think of the French as brooding and sophisticated, their Carnival is about letting lose in an almost childlike way. People are really there to have fun. Although sometimes, it can get rough. The parades don’t just feature official participants, but anyone in the crowd. At certain points, everyone links arms and pushes into each other, in a chaotic mock-fight called the chahut. Although it can get a bit overwhelming — especially for my fellow short people — it’s all in good fun. And so is the ultimate activity at the end of a long day of marching: The rigodon, where the bravest participants dance and dance madly around in a circle, pushing into each other every which way while singing traditional (mostly bawdy) Carnival songs. The energy is high, the tempo relentless. In the cold north French winter air, you’ll often see steam rising from the mass of pushing, dancing bodies.

I’ve been able to experience Carnival in northern France several times, thanks to visits with my husband’s extended family. But in recent years, we haven’t made it up during that time of year. I feel bad for my husband, who’s usually a quiet type; in the hurly-burly of Carnival, I’d see him transform as though he were wearing a mask: eyes glowing, mouth open wide in laughter or songs.

A few years ago, I heard some vague murmur about there being a Carnival in Paris. But it seemed like such an event would take place somewhere important, like the Champs Elysées, and there was nothing like that going on there. I chalked the whole thing up to a linguistic misunderstanding on my part, and forgot about it. But then, a few months ago, I found out that I wasn’t wrong: There is a Paris carnival. It’s just not exactly where or what you’d expect.

A bygone tradition revived in 1997, the Paris Carnival is a much, much smaller celebration than Carnivals in northern France. Ending at the Place de la République, one of Paris’s essential gathering spots, the parade begins at the Place Gambetta, in the 20th arrondissement, a district whose diversity, art scene, and decentralized location often earns it comparisons to Brooklyn. This afternoon, we headed out to our first Paris Carnival.

We arrived at the Place Gambetta at around 1:45. The Carnival’s official site​ claimed the parade would start around 2, and in French time, that usually means much later. But there was great people-watching to be had.

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Like many Carnival-goers in the north, many of the spectators had dressed up.

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Some, like the family above, or this baby (or, well, his parents) and these older ladies, even made elaborate costumes especially for this year’s theme, fruits and vegetables from around the world.

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You could also see performers practicing out in the open. This year, groups from several South and Central American countries were invited to participate.

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There were some echoes of northern French carnivals, like this group’s “giant”, a quintessential element of any Carnival celebration.

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There were also a few guys in the crowd who were dressed in drag, another northern French Carnival tradition. One thing my husband missed, though, was the elaborate Carnival hats. These are often made and worn by those aforementioned men in drag, although women might wear them, as well. They’re cheap straw hats decorated with garish accessories like colored feathers or fake plastic flowers. While the effect is usually a bit comical, the hats themselves can take days, weeks, or even months to finish. We saw one woman, who seemed to be involved in organizing the groups, wearing one, but she was about the only person.

But maybe the biggest difference between the Paris Carnival and a typical Carnival in the north of France, was the diversity. Here, the majority of performers were from other countries or other heritages. The parade was even closed out by a Caribbean drum group who got everyone stirred up, just as Dunkirk’s traditional musicians would.

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Although I can appreciate the tradition and sheer, citywide size of northern French Carnivals, Paris’s small one has its own charms. To me, the most impressive thing was that it proudly has its own identity. This is not a Carnival for one community, but for communities everywhere. The parade passed by, traditionally dressed celebrants, visitors from afar, and spectators dancing, laughing, clapping. The Caribbean drum group stopped to perform and a crowd of teenagers came by and boisterously started to dance along. They grouped together, moving faster, faster….

….Suddenly, I realized that, intentionally or not, we were seeing a Parisian, global version of the rigodon.

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