COVID, All The Rave: France Debates The 'Right To Party'

A New Year's Eve 'free party' in Lieuron, France, became a state affair. While politicians are quick to condemn and punish the fête's organizers and attendees, they offer no real solution.

Some 2,500 people had crowded into a hangar in the northwestern town of Lieuron for a 'free rave'
Some 2,500 people had crowded into a hangar in the northwestern town of Lieuron for a "free rave"
Romain Geoffroy

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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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