The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We must not stop living’: French mayor defends Smurf rally that drew thousands amid coronavirus fears

People dressed as Smurfs — a Belgian comic franchise centered on a fictional colony of small, blue, humanlike creatures — attend a world record gathering of Smurfs on March 7 in Landerneau, France. (Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images)

A looming sense of unease spread across Europe during the weekend as once-bustling cities were placed on lockdown, officials worried about shortages of face masks, and the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus grew to over 7,000.

But a small town in northwestern France was not about to call off the world’s largest gathering of Smurfs.

“We must not stop living,” Patrick Leclerc, the mayor of Landerneau, told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday. “It was the chance to say that we are alive.”

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Despite the fears of contagion, more than 3,500 people in blue body paint crowded together in a parking lot Saturday, dancing in conga lines to disco hits chosen by a Smurf DJ. “There’s no risk, we’re Smurfs,” one fan of the Belgian cartoon told AFP. “Yes, we’re going to Smurferize the coronavirus.”

The village of Landerneau, which is home to a little more than 15,000 people and best known for its historic architecture, hoped to earn a spot in Guinness World Records. In February 2019, 2,762 people had painted themselves blue and gathered at a regional carnival in Lauchringen, Germany, taking home the world title for “Most people dressed as Smurfs.” Organizers of Landerneau’s annual Festival of the Starry Moon were determined to top them in 2020.

As the date of the world record attempt grew closer, though, the spread of covid-19 threatened to throw a wrench in their plans. By Saturday, nearly 1,000 people in France had been infected with the coronavirus, and 16 had died. Though the rate of infection wasn’t nearly as bad as in neighboring Italy, French President Emmanuel Macron begged citizens to limit their contact with the elderly, and some schools in northern France closed.

But even as shoppers across Europe battled over dwindling supplies of masks and hand sanitizer, stores in Landerneau were selling out of Smurf costumes. When reporters with France’s TF1 showed up Saturday, they found everyone from hairdressers to butchers to cashiers going about their daily routines while dressed in the signature style of Papa Smurf. Restaurants were crowded with diners in white beards and Phrygian hats, and bright blue Smurfs had been painted on businesses around town.

Undaunted by the potential risk of attending a large public gathering, Smurfs from all over the country had arrived by bus, bike or train, and about 150 people volunteered to help with the count, according to Ouest-France. Shortly after 6:30 p.m. Saturday, an announcer delivered the news: France had smashed the German record, with an unprecedented 3,549 Smurfs.

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The results still have to be certified by Guinness World Records, but the Schtroumpfs, as Smurfs are called in French, wasted no time in declaring victory. As confetti shot out of cannons and drinks were raised into the air, everyone from toddlers to senior citizens began dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

“We figured we wouldn’t worry, and that as French people we wouldn’t give up on our attempt to break the record,” one blue-faced reveler told AFP. “Now we’re champions of the world.”

His companion agreed. “The coronavirus is no big deal, it’s nothing,” she said, deeming the gathering of Smurfs to be “more important.”

Not everyone was impressed. In Italy, where 16 million people were placed on lockdown on Sunday and 631 deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus, newspapers accused the people of Landerneau of lacking common sense. La Repubblica said the Smurf rally was “potentially a very dangerous viral bomb,” while Il Secolo XIX deemed it an “irresponsible move,” according to AFP.

On social media, the reactions ran more to amusement than reproach. “Imagine dying because you just had to go to the Smurf festival,” one person wrote. Another, contemplating the possibility of contracting coronavirus from people excitedly bouncing up and down in oddly shaped hats, concluded, “I wouldn’t even be mad.”

On Sunday, France banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people, ensuring that there won’t be any more record-setting Smurf gatherings for the time being. In a Tuesday interview with AFP, Leclerc noted the policy hadn’t been in place when the Guinness attempt was happening in Landerneau, and added the villagers’ stunt had helped dispel the “ambient gloom” of the current climate.

“We figured that a bit of fun would do us all good at the moment,” he said.