Vive La Révolution! Meet the Duo Trying to Save Paris Nightlife From Starbucks Trend-Forecasters

Photo: Helmi Charni

Though Paris nightlife may be notoriously staid, two brighter spots on the scene in the past few years were Charaf Tajer and John Whelan's clubs Le Pompon and Jackets. Le Pompon was a dance-y Pigalle place located in a former synagogue, while Jackets was a rock-and-roll, biker dive bar in the Marais. Both were unpretentious and wildly popular, and both were sadly shut down last year due to a combination of real-estate issues and other factors. Fortunately, the duo plans to reopen both places this year in new-and-improved venues, and they're working on a third project for July that will be their biggest yet. We caught up with Whelan to talk hip-hop, nightlife herd mentalities, and the magic words to let you skip to the front of the line.

What was the initial concept for Le Pompon?
Charaf and I wanted to create a club that didn’t take itself as seriously as some of the others in Paris. We hoped for less scowling and more smiling. So we chose a silly name. The expression C’est le pompon! in French is a bit old-fashioned and absurd; it’s something like “that takes the cake!” in English. We thought that if we could get away with that then it would set the tone. It kind of did.

How would you describe the crowd?
It’s varied, so — hard to typecast. You get fabulous aging disco queens rubbing shoulders with the hippest young things wearing [cult Parisian label] Pigalle. People are attracted to the atmosphere, and that defies age, gender, or persuasion. 

Why did you have to relocate?    
We didn’t have to; we chose to! We’re of the opinion that clubs should be chameleonic — they should shed their skin every three years or so. No one wants to party at a place that has recently been ripped off by some trends adviser at Starbucks.

What about Jackets, why did you decide to open that?
Perhaps just to be contrarian. With social media and blogs, a herd mentality is easily formed. In Paris, clubs are either playing techno or rap, so we decided to throw a camp rock bar out there with name reminiscent of an '80s glam group. It was a bit of a risk, and it ended up being a victim of its own success.

You had to close down the original location, why was that?
We started a mini-French Revolution in the Marais district, where neighbors revolted against the "noise." Rhetoric-filled banners were draped from windows; vinegar was thrown from balconies into the eyes of unsuspecting smokers — all so bobo landlords could eliminate the perceived threat of property devaluation.  

How do you think Paris nightlife has changed over the past few years?
It’s hard for me to say, as I only came here when I was 21. Le Baron was at its prime back then, which isn’t the case now. So I suppose that’s changed.

Do you think Parisians have different party habits than New Yorkers or Londoners?
Yes, definitely. "Anglo-Saxon" people drink a hell of a lot more and are much more forgiving of errant behavior than their Gallic counterparts. I learned that the hard way. In England, people are more likely to say: “Dude, you were in great form last night!” Where in Paris it’s more like: “Err dude, we need to talk about last night.”

What’s the most popular drink in your venues?
The Bobby — a cocktail our head barman makes with fruits of the forest and God knows what else.

Can you tell us a little about your new venture, Faust?
It’s located in the industrial underbelly of the beautiful Pont Alexandre III. It houses an imposing restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef, a party space in a converted car tunnel, and a terrasse that’s right on the banks of the Seine. The location is spectacular — probably about as good as it gets in Paris. We were very lucky with this one, as it just fell into our laps. We feel that this makes up for all of the times when it hasn’t come off for us. For every idea that sees the light of day, there are ten that don’t. 

Any magic password to skip the queue?
Roger Sterling.