An unruly drunken mob or a harmless evening get together over a glass – or bottle – of wine? French authorities are pondering this question after a series of giant public cocktail parties inspired by the social networking site Facebook.And by ‘pondering the question’, they mean ‘deciding whether to stop it’…
The phenomenon of "apéros géants" (giant aperitifs), which first appeared in Brittany last year, has thrown the country's leaders and lawmakers into a spin. Should they turn a blind eye and hope the drinkers will get bored, or should they crack down on them?Well, shouldn’t that be decided by whether or not they are braking any laws?
Some official party-poopers saw something vaguely sinister, unpredictable and possibly revolutionary in the prospect of thousands of strangers being brought together by the web, and banned them.And we think we are bad….
In the event, more than 50 such parties have taken place across France over the last year without making the headlines and with consequences hardly worse than the average rave party, music festival or football match. That changed earlier this month when a 21-year-old partygoer didn't just get drunk and fall over; he fell off a bridge and died after reportedly drinking up to 15 glasses of spirits. It was a tragic and entirely avoidable death, but not exactly singular in the history of youthful excess.Quite.
And I fail to see how banning Facebook-inspired gatherings would reduce the chances of this happening. Is this the first person ever to get drunk in France and kill themselves?
Overnight the apéro géant became an issue of public order and political concern, particularly to president Nicolas Sarkozy's right-of-centre government, which was elected on a tough law-and-order platform. Although it pulled up short of imposing an outright ban, the official response to the apéros was heavy-handed at best, repressive at worst.Sounds like home, doesn’t it?
Last weekend, French riot police, in their Robocop outfits, descended on the Eiffel Tower, where they vastly outnumbered the revellers who had turned up for the latest advertised apéro. True, drinking alcohol is banned on the Champ de Mars, the open space by the tower. True, failing to get permission for a "public demonstration" carries a possible €7,500 fine and six months in jail. And true, the authorities could not possibly know how many people would take up the invitation, as many a naive teenager has discovered after announcing their party on Facebook.Heh! Not if you’d got so used to it over here. Just ask the smokers...
Even so, the sight of armed police rifling through tourists' bags searching for bottles of alcohol in a country that prides itself on being the cradle of civil liberties was shocking.
Threats to track down and charge the organisers of Facebook apéros also show that while the French like their individual civil liberties, they place an even greater importance on collective rights and freedoms.You mean, they’ll discard those prized civil liberties lickety-split as soon as someone points out that ‘something must be done!’..?
As French MP Jean-François Copé remarked recently when talking about the potentially even more explosive issue of France's proposed ban on the burka: "Individual liberty is vital, but individuals, like communities, must accept compromises that are indispensable to living together, in the name of certain principles that are essential to the common good."Those principles being what? That people shouldn’t be allowed to gather together and have fun?
Shove your principles and your common good right up your derriere, then, Monsewer…