Dec 18th, 2020, 11:51 PM

Secret Soirées in Pandemic Paris

By Tamila Cristescu
Image credit: Nan Palmero, Creative Commons
A journey into the heart of a clandestine "fêtes sauvages" in Paris during the lockdown.

On a Friday night in December, I walked into a stunning Parisian penthouse in the 16th arrondissement with a breathtaking view of the Eiffel Tower. When the light show began, about 50 people had arrived. They all knew each other, of course, for no new faces were allowed. Maximum discretion was a must. This was a clandestine soirée during lockdown.

After a few drinks, many of the guests reached for their smartphones and starting posting photos on Instagram. Whether it was the alcohol or simply negligence, boasting about this discreet soirée on social media was doubtless the reason why parties like this one have been attracting attention — and the police. For those who organize these secret lockdown fêtes, however, it's a way to add some sparkle to the otherwise tough reality we are all enduring during the pandemic.

“I made my peace with it," says the organizer of the party, a famous club owner in Paris. “We are taking these weekly parties very seriously and organize them just like we used to organize the parties in the clubs,'Last weekend the theme of the party was Great Gatsby, it was also an anniversary party and it was quite bigger. Unfortunately, the police came and fined us, but obviously some fines are not going to stop us from having a good time,” says the host of the party. A guest who also organizes parties added: “We are not actually 'organizing official parties', we rather call them 'friend gathering' but with 50 people, DJs, a lot of food and alcohol. No one is paying anything as we take turns each week with the organization." Also, for the people present on this night, potential fines are mere pocket change.

House party. Image credit: Dean Machala on Unsplash.

There is no theme for tonight's party, as two famous DJs have been invited to perform. The DJs, I learn from chatting with one of the guests, were flown to Paris on a private plane so they would not have to quarantine. 

Everyone lets loose once the DJs start their set. People seem to be having the time of their lives, although maybe because of the alcohol and drugs. While drugs might still be taboo for some, they are common at these clandestine parties. Everyone is either taking cocaine or MDMA, depending on the mood, and they are not concealing it. When clubs were open you had to go to the bathroom to do a line. Now you can just do it on the coffee table that is in the middle of the room. Just need to ask someone for a five euros or a credit card.

Since this summer, another new party trend has emerged: fêtes in the woods. The Bois de Vincennes is a massive park with lakes, woods, and open green spaces in the southeast of Paris and it seems to be the epicenter of the phenomenon. Dozens of clandestine parties are happening here. During the summer, these free parties were attracting as many as a thousand people. Now the winter is settling in, it's too cold to party in the woods, but not impossible.

The first rave parties in France began in the 1990s and were extremely popular. But in 2001 a law forced organizers to register their parties with the police, ultimately pushing the ravers underground. While the consumption of drugs in the 16th might surprise you, these rave parties are famous for the drug use.

And then are the ones who are making profits out of these parties.

“Gigantic wild party degenerates in the Val-de-Marne”. “Clandestine party in Paris with 300 people: the organizers risk one year in prison and a 15,000 euro fine.” These are only two of the many headlines in the French and international press over the past weeks as police crackdown on French revelers “breaking free” under the lockdown by showing up at secret parties that break strict lockdown rules.

One of these organizers, who wanted to remain anonymous, explained why he plans these parties: “Through these parties, we are trying to 'resist' together against the measurements and continue our normal lives as they were before COVID, no matter the risks.” He is well aware that with the alcohol flowing around no one actually respects the health measurements. "No one is respecting the rules. No one cares anymore. When you decide you want to come to this kind of party, you know the risks and the possibilities of running into someone who has the virus. We are just trying to live our lives normally, and attending these parties showed us that it’s ok to have fun.”

"Yes, some got infected, but they did not have very dramatic symptoms as we are all young”, said one of the participants who preferred to stay anonymous.

These parties are not easy to organize. “We have a system: we create a closed small group on Facebook and we send invitations there. Those who want to attend have to pay 30 euros to enter and we send the address one hour before the party, somewhere in the vicinity of the actual location where one of our guys directs the people to the right entrance,” says a party organizer.

And while others just try to make money out of this opportunity, jeopardizing not only their health and everyone else’s, there are also small family gatherings such as birthday anniversaries. While compared to these big parties they seem like they can’t hurt, they are still illegal if more than six people attend.

On October 17, a curfew between 9 pm abd 6 am was imposed in Paris and eight other French cities to curb the spread of coronavirus. While it was supposed to last for four weeks, today, two months later, we are still living under curfew.  As of December 15, the curfew rules have been adjusted, becoming even more restrictive. People are now required to be inside their houses from 8 pm until 6 am.

That hasn't stopped the clandestine party scene. Two weeks ago, Sophie, who turned 22 years old, celebrated her birthday at home. A small party with “only” her closest 20 friends and family members. As the lockdown rules require citizens to be inside between 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., the guests had to stay overnight. “It was a long night. I had a blast for sure and I am happy I got to be with my friends, but I wish they could have left earlier”. By 6 a.m. when the guests left, Sophie was exhausted and was thinking if maybe she shouldn’t have celebrated her birthday, or at least made it a day party.

Paris at night. Image credit: James Sensor, Creative Commons.

While the first lockdown in spring was rigorously respected in France, the second confinement that began on October 29th was met with more resistance. There could be plenty of reasons for this. One could be President Emanuel Macron's announcement that the second confinement would be less restrictive than the one in March. In the fall lockdown, people were allowed to walk within 1 km of their residence for one hour a day, schools remained open, and shopping and exercise were allowed. The second reason could be that people are breaking the rules out of frustration and lockdown fatigue.

Two weeks after the lockdown came into effect, a survey revealed that 60 percent of the French admitted to violating confinement rules. Some 43 percent either invited family or friends into their homes, 17 percent admitted to breaching the limit of one hour per day, and nine percent violated the rules to go on a date. Young people are breaking the rules the most, perhaps understandably as they are at an age of more active socialization.

While Parisian nightlife has quieted down since the beginning of the second lockdown, with bars and clubs closed. Paris has a long history with parties, with each arrondissement known for famous clubs. Pigalle, once famous as the Parisian red-light district, still has glam cocktail bars and cabarets. The Right Bank along the canal attracts the younger crowds, mostly students looking for budget-friendly prices. More exclusive clubs can be found in the 8th arrondissement — iconic clubs like L’Arc, Matignon, Raspoutine, The Key, Medellin, and Le Marta. Under lockdown, however, France’s club scene is fighting for its survival.

The club scene hasn't completely died but it has gone underground. French youth have found ways to keep partying. Clandestine fêtes sauvages, or clandestine parties, attract hundreds of people. Even though it is risky, these secret soirées let people escape lockdown fatigue through drinking, dancing, and flirting. Some clandestine parties are organized in big rented apartments and villas just outside Paris. While some of these parties are with only 60 people, others host up to 400 people, having the French police cracking down on them. While some organize these gatherings just to keep their social life alive, others are trying to make money.

Some of these parties caught the attention of the French media as somewhere around 300 people were found partying in a house located in the Parisian suburbs while another, a little bit smaller in size, located in the 13th arrondissement of Paris ended up in a fight between the participants and the police. The clubbers don’t even care about the consequences anymore, health, and legal wise. As they do not care about getting or sharing the virus, they also face fines up to 15,000 euros or even a year in prison if caught, as they are “endangering the lives of others”.

But clandestine parties are happening around the world. In New York, Milan, London, Miami, Barcelona, and other big cities, they all had their own version of secret “wild parties”. Club promoters have a well-connected group and they keep in touch from anywhere they are. “Sometimes we would coordinate parties in Paris, London, and Milan at the same time," said one young club promoter from London. "And we would connect them virtually, so the participants could feel closer and more connected with other young people who are going through the same struggles as them due to COVID.”

In Paris, the wealthy 16th arrondissement of Paris is home to clandestine parties, though more exclusive than the others. While many secret parties are organized on Facebook and the organizer does not always know the participants, clandestine soirées in the 16th are more close-knit. The hosts are well-known Parisians who work in the entertainment and night-life industry. In an interview with Sky News, DJ Carl Cox said, “These illegal parties are basically done out of frustration, done out of showing it's our right to do what we want to do. It's not the answer to this. "The lockdown has destroyed my social life, I haven’t left my apartment in a month, I needed this party for my mental health as I feel so depressed, anxious and frustrated,” said Noura, a 23-year-old model present at the party.

At almost 8 a.m. the luxurious penthouse party on the 16th started coming to an end. Guests left after more than 12 hours of partying, but none of them looked tired. And even if they were, they had a blast. Now everyone is getting ready to go back to work like this party never happened, until of course, next weekend.

For now, all that can be done is wait for the holidays to pass and look forward to January 20, when restaurants, cafés, and bars will reopen and people will be hopefully allowed to party again. But things will never be the same, and fun will now come with strict rules, masks, and hand sanitizers.