PARIS — "Completely irresponsible behavior" that "embarrasses our country," carried out by "thugs"... on Jan. 1, many politicians expressed their indignation after news broke that some 2,500 people had crowded into a hangar in the northwestern town of Lieuron for a "free rave," in blatant defiance of the nationwide COVID-19 curfew.

The party, which was filmed live by TV cameras, became a state affair. Crisis meetings at the Interior Ministry, police reinforcement, confiscated equipment, live-tweets from the interior minister himself… the government wanted to make an example of these offenders. The party was supposed to last the entire weekend, but ended that Saturday morning after 1,645 fines were handed out, 1,225 of which were for non-compliance with social distancing rules.

Four people were charged with endangering the lives of others. Among them, one 22-year-old man, who is suspected of organizing the illegal gathering but has no criminal record, has been in pretrial detention since Jan. 4. It's a first for this kind of case, according to his lawyer.

On Jan. 16, supporters all over France protested for their "right to culture" and against what they deemed "disproportionate repression." They marched alongside opponents of a pending security law that would make it harder for citizens to take photographs or film police.

Given the current health crisis, thousands of people gathering in a hanger is clearly reckless. Masks were worn by only a few and the risk of contamination was high. Those who deprived themselves of celebrating New Year's Eve to comply with restrictions have every right to demand these party-goers be held accountable. But the party's organizers — who speak anonymously — insist the problem was also due to a lack of alternatives as citizens came from all over France to dance in − 2 °C on the last night of 2020.

They aren't just hooligans and delinquents, as certain political leaders would like us to believe. They are the young and the not-so-young, often wholly integrated into society, who rallied together around a common passion.

They are the young and the not-so-young who rallied together around a common passion.

Free raves have been illegally organized since the 1990s in parallel — and sometimes in opposition to — commercial electronic music, which had become a major player in the music industry. "Capitalist logic" was rejected at these free, autonomous parties where the BPM (beats per minute) went faster and harder than in night clubs.

Of course, the current backlash from politicians and media against free raves is nothing new. In 2001, then president Jacques Chirac railed against "security" problems and the "environmental aggression caused by this intense music." A few months later, an amendment was proposed by Thierry Mariani, a deputy for the UMP party, that forced free parties to register themselves at their local prefecture and enforced sanctions for non-compliance, including the confiscation of sound equipment, which is often extremely costly. Ever since, party collectives have been systematically butting heads with their local prefects.

This legislative tightening has led to a permanent game of hide-and-seek between party organizers and the authorities. Anyone who has participated in these raves knows they can only be pulled off with well-oiled organization and serious self-governance. It's not like going to a nightclub. You have to protect yourself against the cold, find a vehicle to take you to a rural location that's kept secret until the very last minute, often gathering hours before the party in the parking lot of a neighboring area to thwart authorities.

Police officers giving fines to people who took part to the rave party in Lieuron — Photo: Maxppp via ZUMA Press

As nightclubs and concert halls have been closed in France since March 2020, an entire demographic previously unfamiliar with such raves have discovered the liberating joys of the music, chance encounters and dance that they've been deprived of since the coronavirus hit. Every weekend of this past summer, for example, you could cross hundreds of people congregating in impromptu crowds in the Parisian park Bois de Vincennes.

On July 1, the biggest free party since the end of lockdown took place in the department of Nièvre in central France, bringing together over 6,000 people. Rather than employing a tactic of repression, the local authorities turned to prevention and called on Techno +, an organization that specializes in reducing the risks often tied to these types of events. Hand sanitizer and 20,000 masks were distributed, and attendees were told to self-isolate after the party. Sylvie Houspic, the prefect in charge, wanted "to make it possible for this event to happen as safely as events that had been authorized."

Despite the cold, parties are still happening every weekend out of the sight of watchful eyes.

Every nightlife professional and organization, starved for income, have tried in vain to alert the public authorities to their catastrophic situation, attempting to find alternative solutions or approved spaces.

"We should never forget that we live together and I think we need to reduce our less important contacts... our party ones," said President Emmanuel Macron in October. "The absence of cultural and social spaces engenders serious consequences for our population," is what the organizers of the free party in Lieuron replied in an opinion piece published in the French daily Libération.

As anthropologist Emmanuelle Lallement noted in an interview with Le Monde, parties have "once more become political tools. Party-goers are using them in a political manner as a form of resistance, even rebellion, whereas authorities are using them as a way of exercising their power."

How long can we deprive a generation, whose social and economic well-being has been threatened by the pandemic, of its cathartic outlet? Instead of prohibitions and condemnations that don't solve anything, those who claim thee parties are a political gesture are now expecting a political gesture in return.


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