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White Picnic on the Champs Elysées

picnicblanc2.jpgIf you happened to be out on Thursday night at approximately 9:15pm, you probably wouldn't have noticed a large number (50? 75?) of tour buses pulling over on the Avenue des Champs Elysées. There are always tour busses on the Champs. But at exactly 9:30pm something extraordinary happened. The doors to the busses opened and approximately 8000 elegant Parisians and Franciliens dressed in all white spilled out onto the wide sidewalks where they proceeded to set up tables, cover them in white table clothes, vases of white flowers, and candelabras of white votives, and sat down to a modest feast befitting any French picnic. Bewildered onlookers stared as these men and women of all ages, many in tuxes and fancy oversized hats, poured Champagne into crystal flutes.

picnicblanc5.jpg"What is this?" asked one woman as I snapped some photos. This is the annual Diner en Blanc, an amazingly well-organized clandestine picnic sans permit, begrudgingly tolerated by the local police. Each year for over two decades, the location is kept secret, and the list of participants open by invitation only. Invitees are told only where and when to meet the network of busses around Paris (arranged by the mysterious organizers), which then convene together on a different surprise location each year (past picnics have been in front of Invalides, around the Place du Palais Royal, at the Arc de Triomphe).

picnicblanc7.jpgIt looks like a huge wedding party. Especially when, at 10pm, everyone starts dancing to the live band being slowly driven down the Champs-Elysées on the back of a truck. The white picnickers wave and cheer as open-top sightseeing busses pass by, and again when the police riot vans perform the obligatory drive-by, sirens blaring and blue lights flashing. "Go get some white clothes and join us!" says one of the party goers (dressed in his grandmother's chef's uniform). And considering the fact that the Gap, Zara, and many other clothing stores on the Champs were still open that wouldn't have been impossible, but alas, my friends and I were already on our way to another party. As we headed off at 11pm we could see the picnickers all lighting their sparklers in celebration of another successful soirée. And miraculously, it didn't even rain.


My American friends and I contemplated the myriad reasons this would not work as well in the US:

- Orange Alert forbids any public shenanigans that might be construed as terrorist acts

- Archaic "open container" laws prevent the drinking of alcohol on the streets.

- Out-of-control capitalism means that "someone" would find a way of making money from this event, therefore ruining the whole point

-  Most American picnics would never fit on a table that's small enough to carry (all that potato salad gets heavy)

- Most Americans would never do anything that might go on their permanent record (and maybe growing up in Arizona has warped my sense of American police mentality, but I have no doubt that all 8000 picnickers would be rounded up, charged, and fined).

I would love to be proven wrong here...anyone game for giving it a try in Central Park, er, I mean, "an undetermined secret location"?

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Reader Comments (5)

I didn't know about this... Interesting...
One thing though, it's tolerated by the police simply because having dinner in the street is legal in France. :)
June 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDavid
But having a public gathering of 8000 without a permit is not. ;)
June 15, 2008 | Registered CommenterHeather Stimmler-Hall
I suspect there might be a few places here where you could pull it off. Austin, perhaps, where they still celebrate being "weird", or San Francisco. *Maybe* New York or Boston, if you made sure to have the right people invited.

Trying it in DC would definitely be a no-go, at least in the current climate.

I don't know about the whole "fearing the permanent record" thing - I think the bigger obstacle would be the bigger reluctance of most Americans to do something "outlandish" or "frivolous". We're an oddly uptight bunch in some ways.
June 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJohn
We were visiting Paris this week from Boston and were on a nighttime bus tour down the Champs Elysees when we drove past the white picnic. It was absolutely the most fantastical thing I have ever seen in my life!! There were SO many people and it was so orderly and beautiful. It was such a treat to see something like that. I too had the same thought - never in America. Which is such a shame. Thanks for this post explaining the history behind the event! We were all wondering!!
June 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercathy
It took a while, but it looks like it finally came to New York...now if we could only do something like this in San Antonio, I wouldn't mind the smallness of this city.

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTexAnne

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