Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Urban adventurers wind up the keepers of Parisian treasures

By John Lichfield in Paris
Published: 26 November 2007
The Independent

A group of urban adventurers has wound up the French state by creating a clandestine clubhouse in the dome of the Panthéon, one of the most celebrated buildings in Paris.

The group devoted part of its nocturnal occupation of the Panthéon to repairing the building's 19th-century clock, which stopped working in 1965. But when informed of this public-spirited act, French officialdom was less than grateful.

The government has made several unsuccessful attempts to prosecute the group, who are mostly professional people in their thirties, with the latest case thrown out of court last Friday.

The phantom clock repairers belong to a team called "Untergunther", which is part of a wider movement called UX. Originally, it held parties in the 17th and 18th-century catacombs under the city. But since the discovery in 2004 of a clandestine cinema deep under the Place de Trocadéro, many of the secret access routes to the catacombs have been sealed off.

Members of UX, including students, but also lawyers, nurses and even a public prosecutor, have turned instead to nocturnal invasions of public buildings and Métro stations. "Lazar", a spokesman for the Untergunther group, told the French national newspaper, Le Monde: "We are not squatters. These are urban no-go zones. We use them for non-political, creative gatherings, such as film festivals and renovating the country's architectural heritage."

In the gallery under the dome of the Panthéon, which contains the remains of France's official artistic and political heroes and heroines, Untergunther created a kind of informal clubhouse. Armchairs, a table and an electric hob were hidden away in packing cases after each visit.

Entry was child's play. A group member hid in the building during opening hours, stole a bunch of keys and copied them. The group also entered through a passage from the sewers, which emerges under the tomb of the early 20th-century moderate socialist leader Jean Jaurès.

One member of the group – Jean-Baptiste Viot – was a professional watch and clockmaker. With his guidance, Untergunther rescued the Panthéon's timepiece from four decades of official neglect.

After a year of work, they informed the Pantheon management in September 2006. The Centre for National Monuments took legal action, arguing the action might inspire malicious imitators. The proceedings got nowhere until four members of the group were arrested in the Pantheon at 3am one night last August and accused of damaging a gate. This case was thrown out last Friday for lack of evidence. The government is now considering a new law to make it illegal to enter public buildings after official hours.

And the Panthéon clock? The monument service admits that it works perfectly. The clock has, however, stopped once again. The Panthéon management, wound up by Untergunther, is peevishly refusing to wind up the clock.

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