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France's Dunkirk relishes annual 'big mess' of carnival

France's Dunkirk relishes annual 'big mess' of carnival
A municipal worker prepares to throw a doll on the shape of herring fish as part of the traditions of the Carnival of Dunkirk, northern France on February 11, 2024. (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP)

Tens of thousands dressed up in sometimes madcap outfits, dancing in the streets and catching herrings outside the town hall: France's northern seaside city of Dunkirk is revelling in its increasingly popular annual carnival.

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Revellers with painted faces -- many sporting tall umbrellas, fur coats and colourful hats adorned with pheasant feathers -- on Sunday sang songs at the top of their lungs and gave each other friendly smacks on the lips under a grey sky.

The carnival is becoming an increasingly popular attraction in Dunkirk, a city just west of the Belgian border best known to foreigners as the site of the 1940 evacuations of Allied soldiers in World War II.

"Carnival is a religion, it's a communion. Everyone keeps in step. Everyone has fun," a man who gave his name as Laurent told AFP, as chanting participants streamed past behind him.

Crowds jostled under the balcony of the mayor's office, trying to catch smoked herrings that municipal workers tossed down below.

The carnival is said to date back to the 17th Century, originally a warm send-off for fisherman about to embark on long sea trips to catch cod off Iceland.

The herring throwing was introduced by the city's merchants in the 1960s.

Lydie, a carnival goer, said the party was a great social leveller.

"There are no lawyers, no doctors, no garbage collectors. Everyone is the same," said the woman in a green feather hat, who did not give her second name.

Safety rules

But the parade does have some rules.

"Carnaval is a big mess, but it's an organised mess," said drum major Michel Vandaelinghem, who has been taking part for 37 years.

When the festival made its comeback last year after three years of cancellation due to Covid, organisers frowned upon the behaviour of many teenagers, whose boisterousness put themselves and others at risk.

Late last month, Vandaelinghem visited a middle school in the port city's Petite-Synthe neighbourhood to better prepare the younger generation.

Around 100 students practiced linking arms to form the "chahut", a human cordon to protect the marching band from oncoming crowds.

When the music stopped, several teenagers said they had been kicked by mistake, and one limped to a chair to sit down.

In the crowds on Sunday, Caron Davy, 47, had come to celebrate with his eight-year-old son Nyno despite the drizzle.

"It can be dangerous if you head into the chahut," he said, wearing a blond wig and sparkly bra.

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But it was safe if you knew how to navigate the crowds, he explained, adding Dunkirk's children start practicing from a young age.

"They start in kindergarten... with carnivals indoors," he said.

'We're lost'

Elsewhere in the parade, Chloe Duquenoy, 42, said newcomers were making it more difficult to march safely.

"Often tourists drink too much and don't know how it works. They shove forward when you're not supposed to... which is dangerous," she said, sporting a white fur coat with black spots.

"You're only meant to push when the brass instruments play."

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First-timer Lisa Chavriacouty admitted she didn't understand how the crowd worked.

"We're lost," said the 21-year-old in a disco-themed costume. "We were in the crowd for a bit but then we got confused and found our way out."

Francis Duyck, from the mayor's office, said this year organisers had chosen wider streets for the procession route to avoid any crush.

As for any newbies, "it's up to us -- Dunkirk residents -- to act as ambassadors" and show them the ropes, he said.

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