French carnival under fire over ‘blackface’ night

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A carnival in the northern French port of Dunkirk opened Sunday clouded by a controversy over the use of blackface after criticism from anti-racism campaigners.

The weeks-long event, usually attended by tens of thousands of people, sees locals dress up and parade through the streets in costumes, with some choosing to wear black make-up and clothing to resemble African tribal figures.

It is under particular scrutiny this year over the “Night of the Blacks”, a fundraising tradition dating back 50 years, which is set to take place on March 10 at the city’s main conference centre.

A poster, put up around the port before being flagged by anti-racism campaigners in December, features three men wearing blackface paint and feather head-dresses.

The city’s local mayor, left-winger Patrick Vergriete, has defended blackface as a “freedom to laugh, to have fun together”, saying the outfits are satirical and meant to be caricatures.

“Carnival is the license to change your life, to celebrate difference, to change skin colour, condition or job,” he wrote in Le Monde newspaper last week.

The debate about blackface in Dunkirk mirrors other controversies in Europe over the practice, particularly in nearby Belgium and in the Netherlands.

French football star Antoine Griezmann removed a photograph of himself blacked up as a Harlem

Campaigners say blackface is racist because it recalls how Africans were used as entertainment in circus shows in Europe in the 19th century and how black people were ridiculed by white actors wearing facepaint in so-called “Minstrel” shows in America.