PARIS, France — It was the giant cocktail party that wasn’t. Police barricades and bag checks greeted revelers arriving at what was supposed to be France's largest boozy Facebook gathering to date.
With lovers canoodling, families enjoying picnics and musicians beating bongo drums and strumming guitars, the Champs de Mars, the wide expanse of green situated at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and designated as the rendezvous point for throngs of merrymakers, had an ambiance of calm. The most notable difference from other sunny Sundays was the absence of wine bottles and corkscrews. Fruit juice and soft drinks ruled the day.
The calm was a marked contrast to recent parties in which invitations spread virally on the social networking site Facebook. Earlier this month a party in the southern city of Montpelier drew an estimated 11,000 revelers. At another gathering of more than 10,000 people in the western city Nantes, a 21-year-old man died after falling from a bridge, drunk.
Paris authorities did not ban the gathering outright, but officials issued warnings that the aperitif, or cocktail party, advertised on Facebook was “ill-advised.” As the date approached, the police created their own Facebook page to disseminate warnings like: “Alcohol is prohibited at all times on the Champ de Mars, a 'giant cocktail party' can not happen on the evening of Sunday, May 23.”
Signs posted at subway exits near the meeting spot Sunday reiterated those warnings. Metal barricades were erected and police were stationed at entry points into the grassy area, including at the top of the smallest side streets. Officers searched the bags of people entering the field for alcohol.
"Someone died after all,” said one officer. “Before, we allowed people to live, if you will,” he said with a shrug, struggling to find the words to describe the contrast between an earlier time when open containers at the popular picnic venue went largely ignored and the new order of the day.
While the dissuasion tactics of the police and city officials largely worked, some like Pierre de Saintmarc and Carl de Cherisey, decided to try their luck anyway, smuggling in a bottle of whisky “to see what would happen.”
Officers checked their bag, smelled the contents, escorted the pair to a garbage bin and asked them to pour the liquid out into the sand.
“They were very polite about it,” said de Saintmarc, a 20-year-old student who lives in the neighborhood. He almost seemed to feel sorry for them. He happened to be in Rennes a few weeks ago when about 4,000 people gathered for a cocktail party there. “It was packed,” he said. “The police do not have the means.”
But de Saintmarc pointed out that his generation includes the offspring of parents who participated in the violent May 1968 protests that pitted students against university authorities, and then police. He reasoned that now “there’s a false sense of freedom. At the same time, we're just as constrained.”
Ever hopeful, de Cherisey, 21, said he still expected the masses to show, even though none had materialized by the appointed hour. Over two dozen giant cocktail parties have already taken place in France and dozens more are being planned in cities around the country, he said, especially to mark the end of the school year.
City officials in Paris have said they would consider organizing such an event, taking into account all the security details that the impromptu gatherings don’t, but for some that would defeat the point.
Francoise Sicard witnessed “in disbelief,” she said, the interaction between the police and the two young men who were asked to discard their booze. “One would think we were in the Prohibition era in the States,” said the 57-year-old. Young people “are living a totally different youth from ours.”
“It’s not because they have more means at their disposal that they are happier,” she said of youth today. “Behind, there is a real suffering and we don’t let them express themselves.”
Sicard suggested that sociologists should study the cocktail party phenomenon, she said, instead of the authorities trying to stifle it.
As the sun started to set, a few more tours up and down the length of the grassy field revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Police patrolled the green space in teams of three; one trio even took photographs with a tourist.
In one area, blank sheets of poster paper and markers were left strewn about. One had the word Facebook scribbled with a question mark.
Mateo Eranda Hopp, visiting from Buenos Aires for five days and on his way to Italy, created two posters. He heard about the giant cocktail party in Argentina and decided to join. Heeding the warnings, he and a friend finished a bottle of wine before entering the field. He said he was surprised by the heavy police presence, which “makes me worried about what’s going to happen in the rest of Paris tonight.”
“The first night I was here, we met some girls and we were drinking screwdrivers on the bus,” Eranda Hopp said, describing a spur of the moment party he encountered on his trip. “We just thought that was normal.”
But he looked on the bright side. At least some promoters showed up for the party: “We got free condoms."