Inside the French Riviera’s pandemic party problem

Image
Partiers enjoying the Paradis en mer Festival, or music festival Paradise at Sea, off the coast of Marseille, France, in July. Ilan Deutsch/Paris Match/Getty Images
  • From Saint-Tropez to Marseille and Nice, parties across the French Riviera this summer have been making international headlines.
  • In conversations with Business Insider, several French residents described a scene of non-stop partying and minimal mask-wearing.
  • In recent weeks, restaurants and night clubs across Saint-Tropez have been forced to close down.
  • According to a release from the public health department of France, the positivity rate in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, which includes the French Riviera, has climbed from 1.7% on August 5 to 2.8% on August 12.
  • Business Insider talked to French locals, parsed through local and national reports, and dove into social media posts to piece together the story of the French Riviera’s pandemic party summer.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

At Nikki Beach Saint-Tropez, the party was on but the masks were off.

Half-naked bodies in neon bathing suits danced under towering palm trees at the A-list beach club. Champagne was flowing, and phones were out to document it all. It was the prime setting for a social media firestorm.

As one 20-year-old Parisian told Business Insider of her two-week Saint-Tropez vacation in July: “Mostly, I partied.”

During France’s two-month lockdown from March to May, Saint-Tropez had been what The Washington Post’s Dana Thomas dubbed a “coronavirus-free bubble on the Mediterranean,” with few reported coronavirus cases. Beach clubs and restaurants reopened in June with limited capacity and mask mandates.

But from July 25 to August 1, per the regional health agency, Saint-Tropez saw 65 new cases. As a result, the town shuttered several restaurants and dayclubs and issued a new mask mandate. Similar stories are unfolding in other towns across the French Riviera.

Business Insider was not able to obtain statistics for each city’s new coronavirus cases, but various reports indicate what the situation looks like across the French Riviera. Nice and Marseille each have an infection spread rate of 1.55, higher than France’s infection spread rate of 1.2. In Marseilles, there are 57 coronavirus cases for every 100,000 people – higher than the national average of 34 cases. And per a release from the public health department of France, the positivity rate in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, which includes the French Riviera, increased from 1.7% on August 5 to 2.8% on August 12.

On Friday, Jérôme Salomon, a French health ministry official, declared Marseille (along with Paris) an at-risk zone for coronavirus due to an uptick in cases. “The situation is deteriorating from week to week,” he said on France Inter radio. A newly issued government decree now allows authorities to impose restrictions in the area.

Martin Blachier, an epidemiologist at Universite de Versailles Saint Quentin, told Business Insider that the French Riviera and Paris are the two most concerning regions in France where the coronavirus is escalating. “The virus circulates mainly in very young people here in France, between 20 and 30 years old mostly,” he said.

So, how did this Mediterranean paradise wind up facing a fresh outbreak of cases? To piece together an understanding of the French Riveria’s summer, Business Insider talked to five locals and tourists in France’s southeastern coast, parsed through local and national reports from news outlets, reviewed press releases, and dove into social media posts from the area. We found that the coronavirus won’t stop the French Riviera from partying – but that curbing the parties also presents a challenge in its own right.

‘Like living on vacation’

The French Riviera is the place for the world’s elite to rub shoulders every summer. The ports glitter with superyachts. Craggy cliffs jut over a turquoise sea, forming the French Riviera’s famously rocky coastline. Quaint villages and coves are hidden between the region’s cities and towns, the most famous of which are Saint-Tropez, Nice, and Cannes.

Saint-Tropez, known as “billionaires’ harbour” and made famous by Brigitte Bardot’s 1956 film “And God Created Women,” is a jetsetter’s paradise. Cannes, home to the annual Cannes Film Festival, lures in starlets and wealthy Hollywood types. And Nice is less party and more highbrow culture, attracting artists and aristocrats. It’s the second-largest French city on the Mediterranean coast after Marseille, which is known as an artsy, boisterous, and edgy city.

As a 22-year-old French local who lives just outside of Marseille told Business Insider, “French Riviera is like living on vacation.”

Saint Tropez, France
Saint-Tropez is just one of the many glittering towns in the sunny French Riviera. LiliGraphie/Shutterstock

In a typical year, the area mostly draws the international tourist crowd, Emma Carnot, a local Antibes resident, told Business Insider. She said they’re often wealthy American or Chinese travellers, and some European middle class families. This year, though, she’s seeing more French and European visitors.

“We see way more of these young people that used to go to Thailand to go crazy,” Carnot said, adding that their hunt for a party often leads them to Cannes and Saint-Tropez. “They end up here and create more problems.”

Tourist season typically starts in mid-April, she said. But according to a press release from the French Riviera Tourism community, this summer started off slow. Hotel occupancy was at 22% in June. By the end of July, it had increased to 72%. Data on hotel occupancy rates in August was not yet available by the time of this article’s publication.

The coronavirus comes to France

The first known source of the coronavirus in Europe was in France: On January 24, two people who had recently travelled to China tested positive in France for the coronavirus.

On March 3, President Emmanual Macron shut down 120 schools. On March 12, he shuttered all nurseries, schools, and universities after discovering the outbreak in France was more widespread than previously believed. And as of March 17, France was officially under lockdown.

While most of France was struggling to obtain coronavirus tests at this time, the president of the gated Saint-Tropez neighbourhood Les Parcs de Saint-Tropez set up a private testing site for its billionaire residents. The preferential treatment caused an uproar in the local community.

Nice beach
Police check on beachgoers in Nice in May, when France slowly began to reopen. VALERY HACHE/Getty Images

Schools and businesses gradually began to reopen on May 11 with social distancing measures and a face mask mandate. By June 22, France’s coronavirus cases had slowed down from its peak of 7,500 in a single day to about 450 cases per day, per The Financial Times. Jean-Francois Delfraissy, France’s top scientific adviser, declared the virus was “under control.”

In June, Macron told his country, “We are going to get back to our art de vivre and recover our taste for liberty.”

But Blachier, the epidemiologist, told The Financial Times in June that France’s increased testing and tracing capacity may not weather a resurgence. That’s not a good sign considering that Salomon, the health ministry official, told Parliament the same month he expected more cases during the summer holidays.

Then came August, the month of the European holiday. Just eight days into August, France saw its sharpest 24-hour increase in coronavirus cases – 2,500 – since May, reported local outlet France 24. Health officials said indicators tracking the pandemic were “officially worsening.” As of publishing time, coronavirus cases in France continue to climb.

The French Riviera is facing a pandemic party problem

Even in the age of the coronavirus, the French Riviera is one big party. Partiers are flocking to Cannes, where Juliette Perelin wrote for Paris Match that “the instructions go to bed with the sun.”

In Nice, a dense, maskless crowd of 5,000 danced to EDM artist The Avener at an outdoor concert on July 12.

Concertgoers looked “like they were in a dance club,” Carnot, the Antibes local, told Business Insider. Carnot noted that she was there for work and that she was one of the few people she saw wearing a mask. “It was a scary feeling to think the whole night, ‘What is happening, are we making a huge mistake?'”

Over in Marseille, newly declared at-risk as of August 14, the coronavirus wasn’t stopping the fourth annual musical festival Paradise at Sea. Thirty boats and floating rafts heaved for 10 hours as bikini-clad attendees partied with wine bottles in hand. Event security took temperatures and shouted mask requirements, but also said they wouldn’t be going to the police.

The 22-year-old French local Business Insider spoke to said the party scene in Marseille is active, especially on popular rooftops like R2 Rooftop and Baou. At Baou, she noted, temperature checks are conducted and masks are required to gain entry. By once inside, the masks come off.

“Absolutely no guests wear masks during the party,” she said. “I feel like nothing has changed except for closed nightclubs and new rules.”

In Saint-Tropez, as Thomas wrote for The Post and as the Nikki Beach scene shows, the limited capacity and staff mask rules became more lenient as the summer wore on. At restaurants, diners danced sans masks, Thomas said; at beach clubs, waitstaff were often maskless or wore masks improperly and many clubgoers refused to put on masks.

“Wearing masks [is] not a sexy look, that’s for sure,” Patrice de Colmont, owner of the famous beach retreat Club 55, told Thomas. He said half of the clubgoers refused to wear a mask inside to go to the restroom.

Saint tropez
Saint-Tropez has shut down some restaurants and beach clubs after a coronavirus outbreak. VALERY HACHE/Getty Images

Now, Saint-Tropez has had to institute a series of business closures. According to Thomas, three restaurants – Indie Beach House, Pablo, and Noto – were shut down after employees tested positive for the coronavirus, and two beach clubs – Moorea and Verde – were closed after ignoring social distancing rules. Saint-Tropez Deputy Mayor Sylvie Siri told local outlet Var-Matin that the new mask mandates will “serve as an electroshock.”

Business Insider reached out to the mayors of Saint-Tropez, Marseille, Nice, and Cannes respectively for information on the measures each has taken in response to the pandemic. A representative for the mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, pointed us to a press release that detailed the steps the city had taken, including a citywide disinfection and a curfew. The mayors of Saint-Tropez, Marseille, and Nice did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A world that keeps partying and a problem that stretches beyond the French Riviera

The French Riviera is not the only region facing a pandemic party problem.

Elsewhere in France, Paris is dealing with crowded cafe terraces and maskless pedestrians, per The Financial Times. In mid-June, thousands of revelers took over Parisian streets for the city’s annual Fête de la Musique, drawing criticism from public health officials. And a reported 10,000 people attended an illegal outdoor rave party in France’s remote Lozere region on August 10.

Outside of France’s borders, parties have been raging all summer long, too. The Spanish island of Mallorca shut down three main party strips after maskless German and British tourists packed bars. Weeks after reopening, clubs in Barcelona were forced to shutter in July due to crowding and lax security measures. A recent party at a Prague nightclub was connected to 65 new coronavirus cases. And in the Hamptons, a reported 3,000 people attended a Chainsmokers “drive-in” concert, which is currently under investigation.

As people across the world seek the freedom of their pre-pandemic life, reckless behaviour – or even just behaviour that was normal before the pandemic – can risk setting back any progress made in slowing down the spread of coronavirus. Blachier said that while the virus is circulating more around young people in France right now, it can put more vulnerable populations at risk.

“That’s exactly what happened in the US, like in Florida,” Blachier said. But he also pointed out that controlling this kind of behaviour is difficult.

“You can’t tell young people they can’t have parties because they need to have parties,” he said. “They need to live. They need to have a life … but they need to protect their family.”

As for the 20-year-old Parisian who spent two weeks partying in Saint-Tropez, she and her friends got tested upon returning to Paris. The results: negative. “I was concerned, of course,” she said. “Not for me, but I was afraid to spread the virus to my family.”