It sounds like a quintessentially French problem: rogue cocktail parties. Over the past year, France has seen a growing trend in large unlicensed, outdoor gatherings organized through Facebook and attended by thousands of young drinkers popping up across the country. Now, as alcohol abuse continues to rise among French youth, the recent death of a reveler has prompted the government to try to find a way to keep the parties safe without shutting them down completely.
Called apéros géants, or giant aperitifs, after the traditional pre-dinner drink (although attendees drink whatever they bring), the pop-up parties are often anonymously planned and since they have no permit from local authorities illegal. To date, nearly 60 have taken place in public parks around France, with organizers competing to see which cities can draw the largest crowds.
But the party turned tragic in mid-May, when a 21-year-old man attending a 10,000-person apéro in the western city of Nantes took a fatal fall from a bridge after reportedly consuming a large amount of alcohol. Another 57 people at that party were hospitalized for excessive alcohol consumption. Binge drinking, long considered a comparatively minor problem in France, has been on the rise among young people in recent years, and many point to it as the reason that apéros have escalated from rebellious fun to potentially lethal gatherings.
Since the Nantes death, the French government has been wrestling with ways to deal with the problem without exacerbating it. Concluding that an all-encompassing ban would lead to more hastily arranged apéros in unsuitable locations that could be even more dangerous, French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux declared on May 19 that apéros would be required to follow the regulations for events like outdoor concerts. That means organizers must identify themselves, submit a permit request in advance and allow the presence of health and safety officials at the festivities. Hortefeux said that whether an apéro could be held would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
France got to see this new policy in action last Saturday night, in the northern city of Lille, when two parties were scheduled to take place simultaneously. Back in March, a local event-planning company called 4NOX launched a Facebook page for an apéro géant to be held in the Place de la République on May 29. Then a second apéro was called by an anonymous Facebook organizer for the same night in a separate location in the city, with the goal of attracting between 5,000 and 10,000 people.
But on May 27, Lille police issued an order banning any apéro that evening, leading 4NOX to cancel its party with a message on the event's Facebook page stating its disappointment with how the situation was being handled by authorities and saying that its party's only objective was "a cultural, religious and intergenerational intermingling in an architecturally pleasant locale." Meanwhile, the anonymous organizers behind the second apéro posted a message on that event's Facebook page maintaining that theirs would go on despite the ban though as a concession, they discouraged people from bringing alcohol. They then moved the location to the site where 4NOX had planned to hold its apéro.
As the French papers reported that Lille police were hastily pulling together crowd-control measures, France's Youth and Active Solidarity Minister, Marc-Philippe Daubresse, made a personal appeal directly on the event's Facebook page, asking that it be postponed until late June when it could be organized officially and carried out in a safe manner. "Just because my office writes up a press release doesn't mean the young people are going to read it," he tells TIME. "So posting my own message on the page of the event is a more efficient way to communicate with those already interested." Daubresse's pleas, though, were quickly deleted from the page by the organizers. "Not exactly great proof of tolerance on their part," he says sardonically.
In the end, only a few people showed up. One attendee posted a photo at 9:22 p.m. on Saturday showing what looks like a handful of people standing around, and called the event "a big emptiness, with small groups quickly sent away by police as soon as they took out a bottle." But Beyram Marouchi, events coordinator for 4NOX, says alcohol isn't the point. He says these gatherings aren't about excessive drinking as much as they are about bringing big groups of people together to socialize. "I think there is a certain malaise in France these days and a need for people to meet up in a large way that simply can't be done in small cafés," he says.
Daubresse sees the apéros as a way for kids to assert their independence. "It's a reaction to adults," he says. "It's a way to say, 'You don't have confidence in us, so we're going to show you that we can organize something by ourselves.' " Whatever the motivation behind the apéros, the government still faces the challenge of transitioning them into safe and legal gatherings. To help, Daubresse announced on May 26 a plan to set up a rapid-response safety cell that could arrive at the location of an apéro within 72 hours of the event's announcement, bringing with it medical and security personnel as well as representatives from youth and health organizations.
But before any of that can happen, authorities are learning to use social-networking sites to keep track of apéro invites and reach out to their organizers. Because the party planners rarely identify themselves, authorities can only monitor the events pages as they are created, then entreat the organizers to get in touch so that together they can make arrangements for the event's safety.
Daubresse claims that illegal apéros are already on the decline, the result of more and more organizers' choosing to consult with authorities. Still, as much as France's government wants to turn apéros géants into officially approved and monitored events, for some the illicit element is part of the appeal. With summer beginning and more invitations popping up on Facebook for apéros in cities across the country, the party could just be getting started.