This traditional French festival is Europe's "best-kept secret"

This traditional French festival is Europe's "best-kept secret"

Rooted in local community activism, Marseille’s ‘Carnaval de La Plaine’ has been battling oppression through art and anarchy for the last 20 years.

Marseille is in flux. France’s second-largest city, where the very poorest live at its centre, has been the entry point for millions of immigrants since it was founded by the Greeks in 600 BC. As the adrenalised heart of the Mediterranean, it revels proudly in its rebel status and political militancy. Aggressive and noisy as a rule, today it is fighting gentrification in a war to preserve its identity.

Walk through this densely populated metropolis and the grinding sound of drills and hammers rings out everywhere. Bathrooms the colour of nausea, brittle plywood kitchens, plagued sofas and splintered furniture dating back many decades lay in dejected piles – cut out and left in the gutter as a damning testament to new neighbours. The poor are being firmly pushed out.

Since 2000, on every third Sunday of March, a carnival takes place in a large square: La Place Jean Jaures, otherwise known as La Plaine. Once controlled by the locals, urban renovation has now made it a highly symbolic territorial battleground between militants and the police. Members of the community of La Plaine, Noailles and Réformés (three neighbourhoods in Marseille), made up of artists, anarchists and left-wing activists, get together to celebrate their war against gentrification by building enormous floats and effigies to parade through the streets, incarnating hated national and local political figures in wood, textiles and papier-mâché.

As I descend into the square at 3pm, a mob in fancy dress is already flowing in.

This year the theme is Airbnb – a much-hated phenomenon in Marseille for hiking up rents across an already marginalised city. Swarms of people dress as cockroaches and bedbugs. One with floppy teddy bear-arm antennae shares a beer with a woman dressed as bug spray. A bearded man wanders past: he has built a frame around himself to look like he is still in bed, his head resting comfortably on a pillow as he smokes hashish.

Above us, from a balcony, hangs a huge banner that reads: This building has voted against AIRBNB – here, we serve DEAD AND BREAKFAST.

Choreographed brass and percussion groups knock out intense rhythms that send the gathering wild. In another pocket, a group of musicians dressed as crayfish shake up samba-like beats, to which the crowd responds with ecstatic dancing. Smoke billows into the air from merguez sausages on a barbecue, as plastic pints of double Pastis are downed by revellers itching to take the party to another level.

A 15-foot-tall dragon with a snapping jaw is made entirely from discarded suitcases. Its creators push it on wheels as the crowd follows it toward the city centre. One woman dressed in bright green balloons whispers in a young man’s ear. He proceeds to modify the popular and syncopated chant on his loudhailer: “Tout le monde déteste la police!" - (EVERYONE HATES THE POLICE) replacing ‘police’ with ‘tourists.’

The crowd joins in with full force. I follow the procession out of the square and get stuck behind someone who has come as Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks. On her back is a sign that reads STOP INCEST AND FEMICIDE, which is in keeping with slogans sprayed up on the walls across Marseille.

Later, after darkness falls, fresh paint in giant letters will simply spell out ‘FUCK ALL MEN’ on the door of someone’s home.

The mood is jubilant as people’s inhibitions are shed and new personalities are taken on. One young woman has a bag of flour and, as per tradition at the Carnaval de la Plaine, she flings handfuls of it across anyone who dares attend without a costume. In pagan times, it may well have been human excrement.

Pointedly not participating in the festivities, five teenagers of North African origin stand beneath an ancient tree at the top of the rue d’Aubagne, which leads down to Noailles – the heart of Marseille, populated by immigrants and refugees. The boys in shades and tracksuits do everything they can to ignore a heaving mass that runs its way through their neighbourhood, until a young woman dressed as a house throws large handfuls of flour over their sports gear. The boys erupt in a fury. One spits at her and she responds by closing down the space between them at great speed.

The crowd intervenes, all arms and contorted expressions in face paint. The fracas is broken up as quickly as it began, a colourful sea of revellers swallowing her up and taking her away. The boy remains furious. Wide-eyed and jaw trembling, he threatens to knock-out anyone, as his friends drag him back. “I am not part of this – do I look like a fucking clown? I’m not a fucking clown!” This boy on the margins of society is left behind by the amorphous procession as it moves on, his disgruntled face still smothered in flour.

The energy on the street begins to vibrate with a hollow ring as we descend the rue d’Aubagne, the scene of a horrendous tragedy in 2018. Housing left uninspected led to the sudden collapse of two buildings, leaving many of its inhabitants crushed to death within the walls of their homes. The scandal was traced back to local government corruption: it is still raw and fuels the ire of the ultra-left to this day. Some candles have been lit and the faces of those that perished are printed on a plastic plaque. An expanse of sky stares down at us where the building should be. (Since the writing of this article another building collapsed close to La Plaine on 9th April, claiming 7 lives.)

Noailles residents are out in force, everyone filming the action on their smartphones. Four Congolese men stand in front of a barbershop. I ask them if they have seen the carnival before. “I see it every year but I don’t know what it’s about,” says one, hidden behind Versace-style sunglasses. I tell him it’s an anti-capitalist parade. He shrugs and turns his mouth upside down.

The parade snakes its way down and back up the hill again to la Plaine. Revellers are now visibly euphoric, outside of themselves with their make-up running; screaming and laughter almost malevolent now. The effigies are led to the edge of the square and then set on fire to the delight of the crowd which dances around the flames. Running faster and faster in circles, chanting their hate for the police, it feels medieval. One by one, the floats of replica buildings, seagulls, yachts and politicians are thrown into the fire, the towering flames searing the faces of the crowd. A woman lights a flare that fires red smoke into the air. She is open-mouthed beneath a towering recreation of Death, one red eye blinking within his hood. The thick smoke spirals uncontrollably as the devil hangs in a tree and laughs at her friend for failing to climb its branches to meet her. It gets dark.

It is not long until the CRS paramilitary police turn up to clear the square as they do every year, sending everyone running by firing tear gas. We clamber into a tiny bar waiting for the chemical cloud to subside. Every time someone enters, the gas forces everyone’s eyes to stream and throat to burn, but the room settles down as if on any other evening.

Outside the window, a lone man dressed as a Scotsman dances in the smoky wisps, booting away the cylinders the police fire his way. I turn to a friend dressed as an elegant clown of nightmares and fantasies. “You know, during Covid, they tried to ban it, but we came out anyway. Even with curfews enforced by the police, we came out with no masks,” she laughs. “At least not the masks they wanted us to wear. It empowered us. We knew we were going to be free again. With tongues in each other's mouths and meeting on the street. It gave us life.”

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