Paris in the swing time

Wife-swapping means beige sofas, key parties and The Ice Storm, right? Wrong - it's the latest craze in Parisian clubs, and it's taking France by storm
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The Independent Culture
You can say what you like about transvestite porn actresses, but they don't beat about the bush. There I was in the cellar bar of the 41 Club, chatting to Pages, a swarthy siren in white sequins and matching wig-hat, about his or her act - " 'ard, tres 'ard". With scarcely a bat of voluminous eyelash, Pages' muscular fingers suddenly sought out my crotch and began kneading and unbuttoning. I cancelled my next item of repartee, lest it emerge as a strangled whimper, and took an unexpectedly large slug of the 140 franc whisky I'd been hoping to spin out for an hour. On the dance floor, a circle of young men jostled to join in caressing the body of a girl who had stripped to bra and panties. In the gloom, on a banquette, a middle-aged woman got to grips with an impassive man, who then took a tissue casually from a box on the table and pulled up his trousers as if he'd just had a quick check-up.

Welcome to Paris libertine. If recent press reports are to be believed, this sort of thing is booming, above all echangisme, or partner-swapping. Even the venerable leftish intellectual weekly Le Nouvel Observateur has lately run a feature on echangisme, though why it should suddenly be news is not clear.

The wife-swapping party is hardly a new phenomenon: once known as the partie carree, it reached its apogee in the early Seventies when the film Emmanuelle was in vogue and showbusiness luminaries frequented an early boite named Le Roi Rene near Versailles. A number of young media people I consulted thought the whole thing rather ridiculous and old hat. Others did not. A female journalist who wrote a column two years ago for the hip youth magazine Nova Mag under the pseudonym Alex, Sex Reporter, confirmed that the serious press is catching up on a genuine trend. "I saw lots of TV people in the echangiste clubs, entertainers, even a film star..."

A key factor in the current buzz was the setting of the publishing event of last year, Michel Houllebecq's novel Les Particules Elementaires. Houllebecq's jaundiced and explicit fable was headline-catching enough, but a court action by a New Age holiday camp identified as a location for sexual high jinks in the book was the icing on the cake. Les Particules Elementaires has now sold a quarter of a million copies.

In search of echangiste action in Paris, I started at Le Clos, run by Alban Ceray, a celebrated ex-porn actor. Behind the unmarked door, a series of stone-pillared, dim-lit rooms in a configuration soon to become familiar: a bar, a small dance floor, toilet and shower areas and dimly lit lounges and alcoves with wide leatherette reclining surfaces around three sides of the room. An S and M room with whips and manacles (extra dog-collars and leads behind the bar). The only thing missing was the clientele.

On to Le Pluriel, near the Marais, in a timbered 17th-century former hostelry. Six clients in a chintzy-erotic decor. An elderly gent in a suit, his similarly aged but soignee wife and a young man who looked like an accountant in a button-down shirt disappeared down to the dance- floor. "Madame will soon find what she wants, I think," remarked the barman. "Why don't you go on down." Frankly, wild transvestites couldn't have induced me to witness the sight, and, in any event, the 9pm deadline beyond which my 230 franc entrance fee clicked up to 530 francs (you pay as you leave) was looming. I took myself off to the Avenue d'Italie, to one of the top boites in Paris, The Cleopatre, where I was welcomed by manager Jean-Marc, a former cocktail barman from the George V hotel, who sported a black shirt, gold chain, and David Niven moustache.

The Cleopatre costs a bomb, but offers a certain drama - red and black, with statuary, erotic paintings in gilt frames, a vinyl-cushioned billiard table to disport upon, a lingerie boutique, a restaurant, a labyrinth with mirrors, porn video room and a room where a couple hump methodically on a reproduction Louis Seize table. "Bonsoir," I mumbled politely and left. It only later dawned on me that maybe I was supposed to join in.

I found a waiting taxi. "Rue de Quincampoix, please." The driver looked at me alertly in the mirror. "What number?" "41 please." "Bravo!" he said, "vous allez baiser un peu?"

Le 41 is run by a blonde named Denise, a former porn actress from the Limousin countryside who attended her first orgy on a barge in the early Seventies and "realised this was the life for me". Denise says her establishment is not an echangiste, but a libertine club. It's also a haunt of celebrities but, she stresses, not one of prostitutes. But the middle-aged woman at the back looked like a prostitute, I ventured. "No, no," said Denise. "That's an old friend, she's a retired mud wrestler."

Apart from Le 41, echangiste Paris in August was pretty quiet. Even the Avenue Foch, where cruising cars pick up partners and vehicles full of exhibitionists perform for passing voyeurs, was quiet. One of the chief reasons, I kept hearing, was "everyone's at Cap d'Agde".

Cap d'Agde is the summer capital of echangisme not only for France, but the whole of Europe. Thirty years ago an empty stretch of beach on an unfashionable part of the Languedoc coast, it has since sprouted a great complex of apartments and hotels.

Houllebecq makes Cap d'Agde an echangiste location of Les Particules Elementaires. It is also chronicled by a sociologist from Toulouse University named Daniel Welzer-Lang, France's top expert on heterosexual hanky-panky.

For a sociological treatise, Welzer-Lang's paper makes pretty racy reading, with its account of the libertine heyday of Cap D'Agde's naturist beach, when up to 1,000 people indulged in exhibitionist sex among the dunes. These manifestations are a thing of the past, Welzer-Lang told me. "The beaches are tightly policed - the action is all in the clubs now, and private soirees in apartments."

A major characteristic of late Nineties echangisme is its commercialisation. Welzer-Lang commented, "Echangisme is an expensive pastime" - as if I hadn't noticed. Nonetheless, the clubs have proliferated: there are now some 20 ven ues in Lyon, where there were six just five years ago and there are now around 50 clubs in Paris.

One criticism of echangisme concerns its undermining effect on the human psyche. The characters in Michel Houllebecq's novel find only a dead end. The threat of diminishing novelty is held at bay by an obsession with genital size, sexual practices copied from the omnipresent porn videos to the rhythm of ubiquitous techno music.

Does echangisme lead to unhappiness, then? In some cases it must, but nobody I spoke to had encountered more than a touch of ennui.

I suppose I should have asked Pages, but standing metres from the centre of a gang grope with the subject's right hand running amok through your underwear tends to throw the interview awry. I'll send her a question by pink e-mail, though, if anyone's really interested.