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Traditional or tacky, France’s Christmas markets are open

Nov 27, 2018 | Mike Woods - RFI
RFI/Mike Woods
RFI/Mike Woods

Christmas markets opened across France over the weekend. Based on traditions in neighbouring Germany, the French versions are sometimes criticised for being too commercial. The market in Paris has returned after those criticisms played out with city officials.

The Christmas market in Paris is the most visited in the country, generally attracting between 13 and 15 million visitors per season.

For the first time, the market is in the Tuileries gardens next to the Louvre museum, a short distance from the Champs-Elysees Avenue that it graced from 2010 to 2016.

Like those found in Germany, and in German-influenced towns in eastern France, warm drinks and children's activities create a convivial and neighbourly atmosphere.

The Paris market also comes with a 50-metre Ferris wheel and other carnival attractions, as well as a skating rink and some 120 wooden stands, many offering handicrafts of local artisans.

Disagreements over 'mediocre quality'
The market is resuming after a year's absence.
City officials pulled the plug on the 2017 edition , citing “the mediocre quality of the events and products”.

“We found out just a short time in advance, so it was very difficult to find other places to show our works,” says Gaëlle Petlak, a creator of plaster sculptures who helped organise the Tuileries edition.

Petlak says she does not understand the logic of the city's argument.

“For seven years [on the Champs-Elysées], we had workshops with totally hand-made products, so we were really surprised,” she says.

“I think it's a political problem, and we don't know the real reason,” she continues. “The market is just a pretext.

Tensions have long been evident between city hall and Marcel Campion , a 78-year-old businessman who has built a fortune holding fairs around the French capital that have earned him the nickname the “king of the showmen”.

“[Paris mayor] Anne Hidalgo kicked me off the Champs-Elysees on the pretext that I was doing 'made in China', so, I'm proposing 80 percent all-French stands,” he told French media back in August.

Campion occasionally attracts controversy in his own right. He dissociated himself from the market in September, following uproar over remarks in which he said homosexuals were “perverts”.

Still, the market was able to circumvent the city's approval with a deal, reportedly worth close to a million euros, to rent the space at the Tuileries garden.

The garden is linked with the Louvre, which is administrated by the Ministry of Culture and Communication.

Campion assured he plead his case with the government and the office of President Emmanuel Macron, neither of which have made public comments on the issue.

It's not 'just marketing'
Some participants say the change of location is proving to be the biggest hurdle so far.

“For the first two days, most of the people were tourists from all over the world, but there were few French people,” says Jean-Luc Breuvet from the stall displaying his hand-crafted jewellery and pressed-flower stationary.

“They don't know it's in a new place, so maybe little by little more will come,” he says. “The best is when we have both tourists and French people.”

But as far as vendors are concerned, the market has not changed in any fundamental way.

“There are maybe little differences, but in the end, it's the same shops that are here,” says Gaëlle Petlak, who is bothered by the suggestion that the market is a purely commercial affair.

“It's an opportunity for us to show our works, so it's really important for us, and I think it's ridiculous to consider that it's just marketing,” she says. “You have beautiful decorations, you have activities for children, and you can buy something or not.”

Visitors to the market report seeing things in a similar light.

“It doesn't look like junky, cheap stuff,” says Michaela, who is visiting from Australia. “And all the food looks really beautifully presented, and smells fantastic.”

“It must be wonderful for children,” adds Mark, her travelling companion. “We were looking at Santa's sleigh up there, the activities for kids, the ice skating. It looks great.”

If anything, they remark that the new location may be a blessing in disguise, given the “yellow vests” protests that marred the Champs-Elysées in recent days.

“After the events of last weekend, maybe it's just as well that it's here,” Michaela says.

The Paris market opened on 24 November 2018 and runs until 6 January 2019.

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