A living legend of France’s fairground scene, Marcel Campion has given authorities fits for half a century. At 77, deep into his latest showdown with Paris City Hall, he remains the rebel with a cause made up of cotton candy and carousels.
France’s maverick of the midway may make a healthy living from carny concessions, but he isn’t one to make many concessions of his own. Campion’s fight to set up his imperilled Champs-Élysées Christmas market for a 10th year running has gone down to the wire after he filed an administrative tribunal appeal against the city's decision to cancel it.
The influential funfair tycoon also assembled enough carny cronies with lorries to disrupt traffic in go-slow operations around Paris to protest the perceived slight and called Mayor Anne Hidalgo “mentally deranged” on French television. Paris city government has essentially argued that the attraction, a 240-stall operation that organisers say draws 15 million visitors every year, is too downmarket for what the French capital touts as “la plus belle avenue du monde”.
Stocky and mustachioed, the colourful Campion is known for a personality the size of La Grande Roue, the 70-metre-tall Ferris wheel he has installed more or less legally on Paris’s Place de La Concorde for 25 years.
But Campion likely established his legend in 1985, when he and a crew of fairground companions occupied the Tuileries Gardens one December night on the strength of a forged letter purporting the authorisation of then culture minister Jack Lang. Police and government officials would intervene, but Campion ultimately won his battle for the lush space on the rue de Rivoli. To this day, 32 years on, Campion’s Tuileries Gardens funfair remains a fixture of the picturesque central Paris gardens, its giant hairy gorilla facing the Louvre Museum beyond, a whimsical provocation astride the midway’s flume ride.
In a testament to the self-made provocateur’s talent for winning friends and influencing people, the same Lang whose permission Campion faked would later pen an authentic preface to Campion’s 2009 autobiography.
Muscling into the picture and taking questions later has been Campion’s trademark throughout a long and storied career. Just this month, despite City Hall’s decision to shut down his Christmas market, police had to foil attempts by Campion’s crew to set up on the Champs-Élysées regardless. “How do labourers do it in a factory? They occupy the factory and then they debate,” he told CNEWS recently.
Born into a family of fairground workers in 1940, Campion was only 3 years old when he lost his mother to a Nazi shell and became a ward of the state. Like others in the Traveller community, Campion’s father had been deported from occupied France and imprisoned in Nazi Germany.
Reunited after the war, the young Campion would help his father working on the fairgrounds, but he ultimately left home at 14. As an industrious teenager, he would save enough money to buy a lottery business for his ailing father and a French fry stand and fairground ride for himself. He set up shop at 17, selling fries outside the Tuileries Gardens. From a young age, he would become a leader among funfair workers and a spokesman at only 25 in their winning fight to keep Paris’s Foire du Trône (at one end of the Bois de Vincennes) from migrating to the suburbs.
“My factory, my life, is the funfair,” he told Paris Match last year. “For as far back as I can recall, it was always my world, with its joys and its pain.”
In 1983, Campion and his funfair fellows occupied the Champs de Mars, the garden in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, to save the Fête à Neu-Neu funfair. He would win that battle, too, obtaining negotiations with Paris mayor and future French president Jacques Chirac.
For all of his power of persuasion, Campion isn’t above intimidation when needs must. “When the going gets rough, I can mobilise more than 3,000 people,” he has told the French press.
The so-called “funfair king” rankles at his nickname by all accounts, saying it’s meant to cast him as a sort of mafia don. By one recent count in the French weekly Télérama, Campion has faced 51 tax audits over the past 35 years – including nine that were still in progress as recently as May – and has been detained by police more than 30 times.
“I am a victim of the racism faced by Travellers,” the jazz aficionado, who owns a bistro decked out in homage to Django Reinhardt, explained to Paris Match last year. “But I am serene. Apart from one or two trifles, I have never had a tax adjustment. I am neither a fraud nor a gangster. I have permitted thousands of carnies to continue to live [from the profession].”
Still, Campion was placed under formal investigation last spring for alleged favouritism and misuse of company assets in a probe over the conditions under which the Concorde Ferris wheel concession was awarded in 2015. But, ever the provocateur, when investigators summoned him for questioning in the case, Campion brought along 50 tickets for free spins on the contested ride and a few copies of his autobiography as gifts, Europe 1 radio reported.
When an investigating magistrate ordered a pre-dawn search of Campion’s home in October 2016, the fairground magnate was quick to post security camera footage of the officers’ arrival, guns drawn, online. After the officers seized €300,000 and hunting rifles, Campion insisted he had nothing to hide, heading as he does a cash business par excellence. “They didn’t ‘find’ the money. I’m the one who opened my safe! The receipts of a fairground worker are 90 percent liquid; I have all the supporting documents,” he told Télérama. “Have you ever seen a mother pay for a funfair ride with a debit card? But we live in a society that is afraid of cash!” he added.
Far from the wartime orphan eking out a hardscrabble existence, Campion is today unabashedly rich and supremely well-connected. He counts friends that span the political spectrum as well as French celebrities of stage and screen like Charles Aznavour, Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. But whether or not his market stalls ever set up shop on "the world’s most beautiful avenue" again, his legend has elbowed its way into Paris lore, uninvited.