Tens of thousands of visitors arrive to see locals get into the carnival spirit while parading through the streets, with some wearing black face paint and costume to resemble tribal Africans. All proceeds for the event go to a sea rescue charity.
Dunkirk holds the biggest and most popular carnival in northern France, running from the end of January to the middle of March on weekends and certain weekdays. And it prides itself on being the noisiest and most unusual event of its kind.
It began in the 18th century as a special feast before the visscherbende (groups of fishermen) set sail for the icy and dangerous Icelandic water to catch the lucrative cod.
A fundraising tradition dating back 50 years, called “Night of the Blacks”, which was scheduled to take place on March 10th at the city’s main conference centre, has unleashed furious responses.
A poster featuring three men wearing blackface paint and feathered African head-dresses was flagged by anti-racism campaigners in December already.
Local mayor, Patrick Vergriete, a leftist himself, actually defended blackface as a “freedom to laugh, to have fun together”, saying the outfits are satirical and meant to be caricatures.
“Carnival is the licence to change your life, to celebrate difference, to change skin colour, condition or job,” Le Monde newspaper quoted Vergriete as saying.
Louis-Georges Tin, head of the Council of French Black Associations, said blackface was used to de-humanise black people as either savages or imbeciles while they were being trafficked as slaves.
Tin, writing in Le Monde, accused Dunkirk of being involved in the 17th and 18th century slave trade. “They claim that ‘The Night of the Blacks’ is a tradition. It’s true, racism is a tradition too,” he wrote.
In December French football star Antoine Griezmann was forced to take down a photograph of himself blacked up as a Harlem Globetrotter basketball player from Twitter after a flurry of criticisms. “It’s a tribute,” he explained, but took down the photo anyway.
Campaigners claim that blackface is racist because it shows how Africans were treated as inferior during the previous centuries in Europe and the US.
The organiser of the carnival, Bernard Vandenbroucke, told the local Voix du Nord newspaper that all advertising online for the fundraiser has been removed to avoid further controversy.
The blackface debacle in Dunkirk follows in the wake of other controversies in Europe particularly in Belgium and in the Netherlands.