Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Paris' nightlife dilemma with night owls, early birds


PARIS: When Paris banned smoking in bars and clubs three years ago, no one planned on a sneaky side-effect: legions of party-goers spilling onto the streets to smoke, chat -- and keep the neighbours awake.

Bad blood between revellers and residents already grouchy at noise levels in the capital's trendy quarters has curdled since the smoking ban took effect in nightlife spots in January 2008, a year after other public places.

Last year a group of DJs and club promoters launched a petition warning that nightlife was dying out in the City of Lights, after a rash of lawsuits against bar owners and steps by city authorities to shut down noisy clubs.

Since then rows have simmered on, and this week Paris city hall hosted a big-tent conference to try to get the warring factions -- club owners, police, residents' groups, local authorities -- to see eye to eye.

"Paris is a city full of contradictions. Every Parisian is both an early bird and a night owl -- we all work, we need our sleep and from time to time we like to party too," Mayor Bertrand Delanoe told the gathering on Friday.

Unlike a city like London -- where trendy clubs and bars tend to be located in business districts, with most people living out of the centre -- in densely populated inner-city Paris everyone shares the same space.

Some 600,000 Parisians work into the night, 230,000 of them after midnight, while 2.2 million slumber in their beds just nearby.

Delanoe admits fostering a vibrant nightlife while respecting residents' right to peace and quiet is a tricky task.

"We Parisians are demanding, not to say fickle," he said. "On a night you're staying in, you'd like a curfew at 8 pm. But when you're in the mood to party, you want the right to make a racket until 8 am."

For the right-wing city opposition, the answer is to build dedicated party zones, one candidate being the Batignolles former industrial site in the west of the capital.

But Delanoe's left-wing team is firmly attached to neighbourhoods that mix work and play -- arguing among other things that lively streets keep the city safer at night.

"Partying and culture is part of what makes Paris shine," said Delanoe.

Starting this spring, Paris will send out squads of red-nosed mimes and clowns to nudge punters into keeping the noise down, an alternative to sending in the police. The project is modelled on a successful experiment in Barcelona.

"It's about getting the message across with a dose of humour," said Mao Peninou, the deputy mayor in charge of the project.

Other ideas on the table over two days of workshops at city hall included public subsidies to soundproof bars that host DJs at night -- at a cost of between 20,000 and 150,000 euros for each venue.

"These small venues are economically fragile, they can't afford to invest on their own," said Bruno Blanckaert, the head of the French union of nightclubs and cabarets, who believes more than 100 bars could be concerned.

Another idea backed by Blanckaert is to introduce independent noise-level surveys for every real estate purchase, alongside existing surveys on electric wiring, lead and asbestos -- as a way of preventing new apartment owners from suing their noisy neighbours.

Delanoe is also looking at developing some party sites away from residential areas -- such the riverbank highways that currently host the "Paris Plage" summer beach, which are already home to a new nightclub, the "Showcase".

According to Paris police figures, 119 venues were shut down temporarily last year over loud music, and "disturbing public tranquility through yelling and laughter."

For Blanckaert, the smoking ban played a "huge" role in exacerbating tensions between clubs, bars and residents, and this week's conference already marks a major step forward.

"It's a revolution. The first time we have sat down and talked about Paris nightlife, and that people are accepting the fact the night is as important as the daytime," he said.


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