Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It doesn't get much more French than this.
Perhaps we’ve been getting this nighttime noise thing all wrong. Cities don’t need more police on the streets or tougher licensing laws to keep nightlife manageable. What they really need is a bunch of silent clowns to hush people with their fingers as they creep by on stilts. This is the approach being tried by Paris' Pierrots de la Nuits, at least.
Patrolling the city since March last year, this group of mute, sad-faced, black and white-clad mediators stalk the city’s busy bar strips on weekend nights, gently encouraging people to drink, smoke and chat at a lower volume. Usually never uttering a word (though followed by leaflet-distributing "mediatisers"), the Pierrots work under a slogan not easy to translate snappily: "Create atmosphere without turning up the volume." Their leader explained their intentions to Le Bonbon Nuit magazine thus:
We want to offer a moment of poetry, of dreaming…many emotions happen, at times even people come to cry in our arms. The only condition is that our artists are silent: mimes, actors, breathers of poetry, circus artists or stilt-walkers.
Behind the artistic gloss, of course, the Pierrots have a serious task. The group's 40-odd performers have actually been funded by Paris's City Hall following a city-wide forum on Paris by night in 2010. With the smoking ban pushing more people out of doors and residents associations in its gentrified core getting more vocal about noise control, Paris (like many European cities) has been dealing with both louder streets than ever and the closure of bars and clubs under pressure.
Given their official associations, some have seen the Pierrots as quasi-official enforcers, killjoys and even "false pacifists" according to one interviewee in Le Monde. The group claim, however, that their interventions are not about stopping people going out at all, but preventing yet more bars being shut down by the city due to noise complaints.
Looking at this video of the Pierrots on patrol, they come across as charming and gentle. They also seem to be effective, as performers claim that people who interact with them do indeed tend to lower their voices a few decibels. Of course, this airy, artsy approach to crowd control might strike some people as just too damn French for its own good (though it was actually inspired by similar efforts in Barcelona), but their relative success nonetheless speaks well of French restraint. Sadly, I fear that any performers trying something similar in a British city would end up getting glassed sooner or later. And while many people claim to find mimes annoying, watching a man trying to an escape from an imaginary box in spooky make-up is a hell of a lot less tiresome than seeing him in regular clothes screaming about how wasted he is.