Paris: Unauthorised rave parties, long a fringe pastime with a hardcore techno following, have found a new fan base among young people in Paris denied a dance floor by the coronavirus outbreak.
Licensed nightclubs have been closed in France since March under measures to contain the epidemic, prompting DJs, who claim their sector risks "extinction", to launch an urgent appeal to the government last month for the authorisation of "emergency party areas".
In the meantime, "free parties" have sprung up around the capital, drawing new followers in young people unfamiliar with the underground techno dance scene, but desperate for a chance to let their hair down.
The Bois de Vincennes, a massive park with lakes, woods and open green spaces in the southeast of Paris, is at the epicentre of the phenomenon.
From the nearest metro stop, partygoers walk about 15 minutes, following the beat of the bass, until they find one of dozens of clandestine parties, hidden in the woods, in clearings illuminated by fairy lights.
In July, "free parties" in the park attracted as many as a thousand people at a time, many flouting guidelines to wear facemasks and keep a safe distance from others to avoid contracting the coronavirus.
"I had never seen anything like it, it was completely crazy," Illa Giannotti, cofounder of the Soeurs Malsaines (Sick Sisters) party-planning collective, said of the clamour.
Raves first appeared in France in the 1990s and were popular until a 2001 law forced organisers to register with the police beforehand, pushing a large, rebel section of the scene, and its faithful followers, underground.
'Partying is vital'
Raves involve dancing from dusk till dawn to loud techno music, blasted by DJs over massive speakers in abandoned warehouses or the depths of forests. Recreational drug use is a common feature.
Now the pandemic has made clandestine "free parties" popular again, with licensed nightclubs to remain shuttered throughout the summer due to the high infection risk they pose to revellers getting up close and personal in enclosed spaces.
In the United States and other countries, authorities have observed infection surges centred around gatherings of young people partying at close quarters on beaches, in bars and other outdoor venues.
"When lockdown ended, there was a lot of pressure (to organise parties)," said Antoine Calvino, DJ and head of the collective Microclimat (Microclimate), which began hosting parties in the Bois de Vincennes in May after France's strict stay-at-home rules were lifted.
"The nightclubs and even bars were still closed and there weren't many alternatives to see friends again and party," Calvino told AFP.
"Partying is vital. For some people, it's a parallel way of life, a moment to let off steam and meet up. It's a pressure outlet and a zone of tolerance without equal," he added.
Surprise at the scale
To find out the location for a clandestine rave called "Trance ta race" held recently, prospective partygoers had to phone a number and listen to a voicemail message for the address.
To get in, they had to climb over a wall, put on a mask and disinfect their hands with gel before paying a 10-euro ($11.8) entry fee to cover the costs of the organisation — but also any potential fine.
The police have cottoned on and, since mid-July, have conducted busts to disperse revellers and seize party equipment.
But the Liberation newspaper has reported that the law enforcement response has been ambiguous — sometimes putting an end to the raves, sometimes not.
At the "Trance ta race", five police ambled through the crowd, warned a few partygoers and confiscated a handful of joints before leaving.
The Paris municipality said it was taken by surprise "by the scale of the phenomenon" of the underground parties.
"There's a real cultural and social phenomenon going on at the moment. And at town hall, we don't want to send in the police, we want to make things possible," councillor Frederic Hocquard told AFP.
"Our approach is to come up with a plan, with authorised places where we know what is going on, where parties are registered beforehand and where we warn people of the risks, whether it be the usual risks (alcohol, drugs or STDs) or those linked to the epidemic," he added.
Police have intervened in recent months to put an end to illegal raves in London and New York over coronavirus risk.