As the infamous Rio de Janiero carnival draws to a close, on the other side of the globe preparations in the heart of Nice for the largest annual carnival in France are almost complete.
The main square and seafront promenade are flanked by grandstands waiting to be filled by spectators eager to enjoy the endless parades of allegorical floats.
Harking back to its more religious origins, carnival was considered a time of merrymaking before Lent, a moment of celebration before all bodily pleasures were renounced. In fact etymologically speaking “carnival” means quite literally “to remove meat”. Vegetarianism aside, the carnival is generally characterised by its emphasis on costumes, parody and local tradition, and to its credit it is now very much an emblematic date in the Niçois calendar. The annual influx of two million visitors to the Riviera, speaks to an unshakeable popularity that has been growing since 1294!
Spanning two weeks every February, festivities continue both day and night. Thanks to modern technology the carnival nowadays has truly become a work of art. Light shows, acrobatics and dances choreographed with thundering music on moving parades really does get the crowd’s heart beating faster.
A further sixteen floats will be making their way down the seafront along the famed Promenade des Anglais for the Flower Parade. The bataille de fleurs is an integral part of the carnival and local residents can be seen as early as January, bouquets at the ready. Over a million beautiful flowers are thrown to the crowds, and in support of the region 90% of these flowers are locally produced.
In a welcome move towards tolerance, this will also be the second year of Lou Queereval, the first LGBT carnival in France held on the 19th February, making Nice a close runner-up behind Paris as the most gay-friendly city in France.
Other traditions include the bracing dip in the ice-cold sea for braver participants. Once night falls the closing ceremony wraps up the festivities with a public burning of the effigial king, and an enthralling pyrotechnic firework display best seen from the beaches.
As captivating as it is in all its glory, what truly makes the carnival spirit so appealing is the melting pot into which it transforms the community. A sense of equality is to be found where secular meets religious, foreigners meet locals and a modern spin is taken on traditions that stretch back millennia. In this topsy-turvy land where giant grotesque puppets reign, age, gender (cross-dressing is a familiar sight) and social class gaps are bridged, and as many of the parades are free, everyone is invited!
Parody is a defining aspect of carnival and if everyone is equal in the eyes of the carnival it stands to reason that no-one should spared from the lampooning. This year it falls to the esteemed French Press to take the brunt, fingers crossed they will be laughing too.
It should be noted however that this year’s carnival theme holds a special place in France’s heart. The « Roi des médias » theme was announced by the mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi last year in honour of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris 2015. Freedom of expression is a fiercely defended French right and this carnival has chosen to celebrate that. The flipside of this however is that the carnival has since been largely overshadowed by heightened security measures. In fact, the local government has gone so far as to cancel all local district carnivals, mainly held for the benefit of local schoolchildren, because of security constraints.
Regardless, the importance of this gigantic street party should not be underestimated; it is a rare opportunity for the whole community to indulge in. A festival of farce, a breath of fresh air between Easter and Christmas and even better, one that taps into the French psyche.
So be merry, eat socca and come and revel in the winter sun. Viva, viva nissa la bella.