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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Bears, lemons and pig-squealing: 9 of France’s strangest festivals

From pig-squealing competitions to men in bear suits, these are some of France's most bizarre traditional festivals.

Bears, lemons and pig-squealing: 9 of France's strangest festivals
People work on sculptures made with oranges and lemons during the 2012 "Fete du Citron" (lemon carnival).(Photo by VALERY HACHE / AFP)

France is home to hundreds of festivals every year, from small local celebrations to internationally renowned events such as the Strasbourg Christmas market, Nice Carnival and the Lyon Fête des lumières. But there are other festivals that are, frankly, a bit strange.

Here are France’s 9 strangest festivals;

Fête du Citron

When life gives you lemons…create a festival involving over 140 tonnes of citrus fruit and invite about 230,000 visitors annually? That is pretty much what Menton, a town on the French Riviera did in 1928 when a hotelier in the region wished to increase tourism. Known for its delicious lemons, Menton has grown the fruit since the 1500s and shipped them all over the world.

The hotelier’s idea, which came into fruition in 1934 ended up becoming a world recognised three-week festival, where the city and its garden show off giant sculptures – some over 10 metres in height – made of lemons and oranges, amid parades, shows, concerts and art exhibits. 

Fête de l’Ours

Recently added to the UNESCO ‘intangible heritage’ list, the Bear Festival takes place in the Pyrenees, along the border with Spain. Stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages, the festival has some surprising components: it involves a man dressing up as a bear and chasing humans.

At the end of the festival, the humans catch the man in the bear costume, and ‘skin’ him (take off his bear costume) so he can become a person again.

READ MORE: What you need to know about the French bear festival recognised by Unesco

It is intended to be a celebration of the end of winter, and while it was practised in all villages in the region up to the 19th century, it still occurs in three villages in the Haut Vallespir, located in the Pyrenees-Orientales département.

La Pourcailhade (Festival of the Pig)

Every year the small village of Trie-sur-Baise in the Pyrenees hosts a unique festival dedicated to pigs. Throughout the celebration, you’ll see pigs in various forms – from piglets to pork and people in pig costumes. The Pourcailhade is known for one moment in particular: the pig squealing competition, where participants get on stage and attempt to give their best pig imitation. 

The festival first started in 1975, at the former home to Europe’s largest pig market, and it usually takes place in August, though the festival had a six-year pause and made its comeback in 2018.

There are also piglet races and competitions to see who has the best pig-costume, but the cri de cochon (pig squeal) contest is something to behold, as shown below.

The Underwear festival

Captain Underpants would fit right in to this village in the south of France, located the Lot département.

Started in 2016, this festival is meant to pay homage to a reporter who made the little town of Montcuq famous across France during a nationally televised segment in 1976. During the celebration, participants can compete with one another in games from sumo-wrestling to a race (in underwear).

The sausage and pickle festival

Andouillette might be one of the French foods that foreigners find least appealing, but its cousin, andouille, is perhaps a bit more appealing…though possibly not enough to join a contest for the fastest andouille and pickle eater.

READ MORE: Readers reveal: The worst food in France

Every August 15th, the village of Bèze, located in eastern France, hosts a festival celebrating the sausage. One key moment is the competition to see who can swallow one kilo and 200 grams of tripe as quickly as possible, all with their hands tied behind their backs. The festival also crowns a queen of andouille and a king of the pickles, and the proceeds go toward helping children with disabilities.

This is not the only andouille centred festival in France. Another one, the “Fête de l’Andouille” which takes place in northern France involves a very important step where the crowd tries to catch pieces of andouille thrown at them from a balcony.

Fêtes de Bayonne

Known as France’s wildest festival, the Fêtes de Bayonne are a five-day party celebrating Basque cultural identity, and they take place in Bayonne every summer. 

Starting in 1932, the Fêtes can be controversial because they have traditionally involved bull fighting, or corrida, which some French lawmakers have been working to outlaw.

READ MORE: Could bullfighting finally be banned in France?

Aside from the bulls, the festival consists of lots of singing, dancing, sports competitions, traditional dress, and crowd-surfing. 

Festival-goers wear red and white outfits to symbolise the northern Spanish province of Pamplona, though some purists wear the colours of Bayonne: white and blue.

One of the most notable parts of the festival is the paquito chocolatero – a type of crowd-surfing where a person is passed over a chain of people sitting on the ground. The Fêtes de Bayonne have beaten the world record for the longest chain of people several times, most recently in 2022, a chain of 8,000 people passed one person over the crowd.

The Historic Ladle Festival

In practice since 1884, the Fête Historique des Louches, this tradition takes place in northern France in Comines. The legend goes that the Lord of the town was imprisoned in a high tower, and to show his people where he was being held, he apparently threw a wooden spoon with his coat of arms from the tower.

The festival, which takes place each October, has plenty of other activities, including a pageant, but the most noteworthy part is the parade where wooden spoons are hurled at the crowd. The goal is to walk away with the most ladles, proving to everyone that you truly deserve to live in the town of Comines.

The Gayant Festival

Close to the border with Belgium, the city of Douai in France’s north engages in a festival to celebrate three large statues, representing a giant family. Called the “Gayants” – they symbolise the city and according to folklore, they helped the villagers survive battles, invasions and wars over the centuries. The procession involves a parade where the giant statues are taken around the city.

This is another French festival that was registered in the “intangible cultural heritage” list with UNESCO, specifically under the category of “Giants and processional dragons of Belgium and France.”

Festival of the Unusual Taking place in Finistère, on France’s western coast, this festival has been going on for almost three decades.

Every July 14th, villagers come to demonstrate one of their “unusual talents,” whether that be throwing an egg or demonstrating how long they can peel an apple. One highlight of the festival is the race – where contestants try to go faster than one another on bed frames with rollers. Some contestants use the festival as a way to show their prowess in the Guinness Book of World Records – one village member broke the record in bending beer caps at the festival.

While France’s many festivals might seem a bit odd to foreigners, they still pale in comparison to some festivals taking place in the anglophone world, such as the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling event in the UK, where participants race down a 180 metre hill to try to catch the Gloucester cheese rolling down it. 

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STRIKES

France’s pension strikes: What to expect on January 31st

The final day of January marks the second - and almost certainly not the last - day of mass strike action in the ongoing battle between the French government and unions over pension reform. Here's what to expect on January 31st.

France's pension strikes: What to expect on January 31st

Unions have promised the ‘mother of all battles’ against Emmanuel Macron’s plans to reform the French pension system, including raising the retirement age from 62 to 64.

5 minutes to understand French pension reform

However, the action for the moment is mostly concentrated into a series of one-day actions, with the first taking place on January 19th.

The next ‘mass mobilisation’ is scheduled for Tuesday, January 31st. It is supported by all eight French trades union federations, which means that support is likely to be high and disruption severe on certain services.

Workers in essential services such as transport must declare their intention to strike 48 hours in advance, allowing transport operators to produce strike timetables, which are usually released 24 hours in advance. We will update this story as new information is released.

Trains

Rail unions are strongly backing the action – on January 19th, 46 percent of all rail workers walked out, and unions say they expect a similar level of support on January 31st. This would likely lead to a similar level of disruption with around half of high-speed TGV trains cancelled and 9 out of 10 of local TER services. 

International services including Eurostar could also see cancellations or a revised timetable. 

Some unions have filed a provisional strike notice running from 7pm on January 25th to 8am on February 2nd, with the option of a renewable strike after that – however it is not yet known how well supported this action will be. 

City public transport

Workers on Paris’ RATP network also saw high levels of support for the previous strike – with most Metro lines running rush-hour-only services and some closed altogether, while buses ran a severely limited service. The full details of exactly what will be running will be revealed on Monday evening by RATP.

Other cities including Marseille, Nice, Lyon and Nantes will likely see a repeat of severely disrupted bus, tram and Metro services.

Ports

The CGT union representing port and dock workers are also set to walk out on January 31st, but have filed a strike notice running from January 26th. Full details of their action are yet to be clarified.

Schools

The major teaching unions have called for another 24-hour walkout, so some schools are likely to close. The January 19th action saw roughly half of teachers across France walk out.

Ski lifts

The two unions that represent more than 90 percent of workers in ski resorts have called an ‘unlimited’ strike beginning on January 31st. So far Tuesday is the only confirmed strike day, but others could be announced. Strikes in ski resorts generally mainly affect the operation of ski lifts.

Petrol stations

The hardline CGT union has announced extra strike dates for workers at oil refineries, and also threatened blockades. This can result in shortages at petrol stations as supplies of petrol and diesel are blocked from leaving the refineries and reaching filling stations.

Power cuts 

CGT members working in the state electricity sector have also threatened more ‘direct action’ including power cuts to selected towns. This is not a legitimate strike tactic – in fact France’s labour minister says it is “a criminal offence” and will be punished accordingly – but it could happen nevertheless.

On January 19th two towns – one in the greater Paris region and one in northern France – lost power for a couple of hours in what was described as a deliberate cut. The union says it intends to target towns that elected MPs who support the pension reform.

Demos

January 31st will also see another day of marches and demonstrations in towns and cities around France. On January 19th more than 1 million people took to the streets and unions will be hoping for a similar turnout on January 31st. One striking feature of the demos on January 19th was the comparatively large turnout in smaller French towns that usually do not see large demos.

Other strike dates

The above information relates to January 31st only, and services before and after this date are expected to run as normal.

Some unions, however, have declared ‘unlimited’ strikes, so there could be disruptions on these services on other days – these include ski lift operators, truck drivers and oil refinery workers.

It is highly likely that further one-day or multi-day strikes will be announced for February and March, as the pension reform bill comes before parliament, you can keep up to date with out strike calendar HERE.

We will update this article as more information becomes available, and you can also keep up with the latest in our strike section HERE.

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