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Can Paris nightlife be brought back?

Text by Guillaume GUGUEN

Latest update : 2013-11-23

Six months before Paris’s mayoral election, Parisian revellers have elected a "nightlife mayor" to address the difficulties of partying in the French capital. But can the fading Parisian bar and club scene be brought back to life?

In his memoir ‘A Moveable Feast’, Hemingway described a vibrant, thriving French capital full of nocturnal pleasure-seekers of varying income levels.

But that was Paris in the 1920s and 30s.

Today, exciting nightlife in the City of Lights is widely considered a thing of the past. Grumbling began a few years ago, with French daily ‘Le Monde’ crowning Paris “European Capital of Boredom” in 2009 and a New York Times article describing the city as “staid and bourgeois” – especially when compared to other hot spots across the continent like London, Berlin or Barcelona.

Bar and club owners, musicians and nightlife organisers banded together to pen a petition titled ‘When the Night Dies in Silence’. It called upon city officials to protect their interests and articulated a litany of complaints: laws restricting opening hours, a lack of reliable transportation for night-time revellers and, especially, authorities forcing punitive temporary closures of venues following complaints by neighbours.

Now, six months before an election will designate Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s successor, the battle pitting Paris-by-day against Paris-by-night is raging anew.

On Tuesday November 12, an unofficial “nightlife mayor” was elected by 2,200 voters in roughly 40 bars across the capital. The poll was organised by some of the same people who launched the petition in 2009.

‘Between a rock and a hard place’

“For politicians, we’re just a minority defending its interests, whereas the residents who complain about the noise are potential voters,” explained Eric Labbé, a publicist for trendy night-spot Zig Zag Club (located near the Champs-Elysées) and one of the election’s organisers. “That vision of things makes the debate unbalanced, and it’s why we wanted to give a voice and a face to the people who work and participate in nightlife.”

Clément Léon, Paris's new "mayor of nightlife" (DR)

The new mayor of the Parisian night is Clément Léon, a writer and journalist specialising in nightlife. “This election is the opportunity to move things forward and create a nightlife that lives up to people’s expectations,” Léon said. “A lot of people say they no longer want to stay in Paris because everything is regimented. I know people who would like to open bars but refuse to do it here.”

Indeed, bar owners and managers in Paris say their job isn’t easy. Thomas Dubber, who runs Face Bar, a small hipster dive in the Marais district, says that he is often confronted with disgruntled neighbours. “The first year, we had 130 complaints, so we had to sound-proof the bar, which cost 25,000 euros,” he said. “We’re constantly between a rock and a hard place: to make a profit, we have to draw in customers but avoid making neighbours angry. If we have to shut down temporarily [because of too many noise complaints], that costs us around 20,000 euros.”

The conclusion is simple, he said: “Better to have fewer clients, and therefore fewer complaints.”

The noise police

But for the biggest and busiest night spots, even the most thorough sound-proofing would not be enough to appease residents seeking quiet. “Most of the noise doesn’t come from music but from people outside smoking,” noted Billy Hadley, one of the owners of Sans-Souci, a bar in Paris’s once-gritty, now largely gentrified red-light district, Pigalle.

Since smoking inside bars and clubs was banned in 2007, many bars have had to hire security guards whose job is to keep customers who have stepped outside for a smoke as quiet as possible.

The presence of the stern noise patrol is not exactly conducive to creating a festive evening atmosphere. “It annoys customers to always be told to quiet down,” Labbé said.

Eager to urge Parisian bar-hoppers to be sensitive to the noise problem, Paris authorities in 2012 began deploying mimes clad in white costumes to stroll the streets of the capital between 11 pm and 3 am every weekend, hushing and shushing people with a smile.

Unsurprisingly, the initiative has irritated as much as it has helped.

Mimes urging revelers to keep the noise down (AFP)

The effort to keep noise down is further complicated by the fact that large numbers of bars tend to be clustered in specific areas in the city. “There’s too high a concentration of bars in certain parts of Paris,” said Gérard Simonet, a member and founder of a group of Marais residents who have been fighting to keep their neighbourhood quieter. “If the bars were more evenly spread out across the city, there would be less tension. What needs to be avoided is the creation of localised abscesses of noise in small areas where a lot of people live.”

According to Simonet, Paris, with its estimated 3,000 bars and clubs, is the only viable option for those seeking nightlife in the region, drawing not just Parisians but also those from the suburbs and smaller cities. “A lot of people come to Paris to have fun at night because they don’t have the possibility of doing it in their own town,” Simonet said.

Parisians partying in the suburbs?

Associations like the one Simonet heads hope that Parisians will one day routinely travel beyond city limits for a wild night out on the town. Some nightlife organisers are already hard at work making sure that happens, organising giant techno parties in locations like the Bourget airport in Seine-Saint-Denis (northeast of the capital) or an artists’ squat in Ivry-sur-Seine (a southeastern suburb). Those events have drawn throngs of young people who have grown tired of the cramped spaces and prohibitive prices of Parisian bars and clubs.

“The organisation of big parties in the suburbs is something we’ve been hoping for, but we thought it was a fantasy, since Parisian nightlife has always been concentrated within the twenty districts of the city,” Labbé said. “We can no longer conceive of Paris nightlife as exclusively within the city, which is the size of a postage stamp. In order to compete with cities like London or Berlin, we need to be the same size – which means Paris plus its surrounding areas.”

To successfully expand Parisian nightlife, however, public transport would need to be revamped too. Parisian partiers are all too familiar with the logistical difficulties of navigating the capital at night: a shortage of taxis on the weekend, a metro system that closes before 2 am at the latest and infrequent night buses full of rowdy, and sometimes disruptive, passengers. The lack of nocturnal mobility in Paris makes keeping up with other European cities a daunting prospect, especially since low-cost airlines have made those cities more affordably accessible to Parisians.

“Parisians go to other European capitals to party but other Europeans don’t come to us for that,” new “mayor” Léon noted, adding that he hoped to reverse this. “Foreigners come to Paris in romantic mode, with their boyfriend or girlfriend.”

It may never go back to being “a moveable feast”, but Paris can find solace in the fact that it is still the capital of love.

Date created : 2013-11-13


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