The weeks-long carnival in Dunkirk has a ‘Nuit des Noirs’ (Night of the Blacks) event during some participants choose to wear black make-up and clothing to resemble African tribal figures.
The 50-year tradition has come under fire from anti-racism campaigners who argue the use of blackface is racist and a mocking caricature of black people.
Posters put up in Dunkirk ahead of the event in March depicting three men wearing blackface paint and feather head-dresses has been met with a backlash from some locals and many across France on social media.
The city’s mayor has defended the controversial event, saying it allows “freedom to laugh and have fun”.
In an opinion piece for Le Monde Patrick Vergriete said: “During the carnival, Dunkirk is the capital of freedom. Almost anything is allowed. Dressing up is at the heart of our celebration…”
Louis-Georges Tin, head of the Council of French Black Assocations, said blackface “is not only a racist act, it’s linked to crimes against humanity.
“It’s the opposite of a grinning face of a slave, which was made acceptable, even considered as entertaining in the eyes of people in the West.”
Blackface is regarded as racist because it recalls how Africans were used as entertainment in circus shows in Europe in the 19th century and how white actors in the US used black paint on their faces to ridicule black people when depicting slaves.
The use of blackface during Dunkirk’s carnival refers to the port city’s little-known role in the 17th and 18th slave trade.
Online advertising for the event has been removed because of outcry over its use of blackface.
Carnivals and other events in the Netherlands and Belgium have also under fire for their use of blackface.