Heretik System: A Pillar of France’s Free Party Movement

Jul 5, 2023

John Cameron

6 min read

Dance music spurred political movement anyplace it manifested in the ‘90s. The U.S. had Detroit techno collective Underground Resistance, whereas anarchist crews like Spiral Tribe grew popular following the U.K. acid house explosion. France had antagonists of its own, but none as notorious as Heretik System.

Heretik organized free parties throughout the latter half of the ‘90s and most of the 2000s, inspiring a wave of similar organizers in mainland Europe. Among their core constituents were artists like Leo, Popof, Jano, KRS and Beuns — although their loosely organized outfit included an untold number of collaborators.

Heretik System started out as a pursuit of carefree hedonism. In time, it would evolve into something far more focused.

The seeds of that eventual legacy were nonetheless sewn from the beginning. Heretik took direct inspiration from the aforementioned Spiral Tribe, which famously pushed back on the U.K. Parliament’s 1994 Criminal Justice Act. In a 2000 interview with La, Leo said that “It was the Spirals that got us hooked on tekno.” In the 2010 documentary We Had a Dream, Jano cites a Spiral Tribe gathering as his very first rave.

“We were all dedicated to the same thing — which was to party freely to the music we loved," POPOF told Vice in 2015. "So, after a while, we decided to set up a sound system and to name it 'Heretik' in order to organize our own parties."

They threw their first free party (sometimes called a teknival) before even adopting the name Heretik System. Teknival de Tarnos saw Jano, Nout and Leo team up with new friends POPOF, Aness, and the late Moumouth in Southwestern France’s Tarnos commune. At the time they were all novice DJs, but the crowd could have convinced you otherwise. The party drew 3,000 revelers.

It also attracted unwanted police attention. Authorities broke up the gathering, but not before its organizers arrived at their blueprint. They began operating as Heretik System (inspired by Heretic, a 1994 computer game Leo enjoyed) and began planning their next outing.

Law enforcement stayed on their trail and their September 1996 free party resulted in a number of arrests as documented in We Had a Dream. Among them was KRS, who had cocaine, ecstasy, and LSD on his person — but was let go on a technicality. Jano wasn’t as lucky; he said he was arrested and jailed for five months.

Undaunted, Heretik System continued to grow more organized. 1997 marked their first foray into ticketed events (although mostly as a way to scam organizers of more commercial parties), and they acquired a warehouse in Crancey, a commune an hour and a half from Paris. Several of the members also moved in together in a house in Aulnay, which sits closer to the capital city.

Not even the police could deny the allure of the unfolding free party movement. Jacques Prigent of the French intelligence service, an agent who also investigated French party crews like TNT and UFO, admitted as much. “When the bass is pumping, it lifts you up,” he said. “I got to the place in Crancey, and I felt myself lifted up.”

This didn’t stop them from continuing to apply pressure. At the unceremonious climax of a joint venture between Heretik and UFO, police confiscated and burned innumerable records. Not only that, but an officer allegedly dragged Leo over 50 meters across the ground by the dreadlocks he wore at the time.

Leo responded in kind, beginning to steer Heretik in a more activist direction. “Leo had a political view of things,” recounted Jano. “He knew how to give the movement another dimension that pushed it forward.”

As with any group rising to fame while surviving the fast-and-loose lifestyle of diehard ravers, infighting began to corrode Heretik’s foundations. Then, tragedy struck. In late 1998, one of the members living in the Aulnay house committed suicide by jumping under a train at the nearby station. Only a month later, six more died while sleeping inside the house itself. All inhaled carbon monoxide poisoning after going to sleep with a generator running on account of the tenants having no electricity or heating.

The surviving Heretik members bitterly mourned those who passed, but the dire turn of affairs strengthened their bond with one another. Jano explained, “The tragedy glued us all back together, and we all went in the same direction again.”

“Before the accident, we were a group of friends, a crew, a sound system,” KRS added. “But after this happened, we became a family. This connected us for our whole lives.”

The following year, Heretik System got to work on its most ambitious free party yet. Instead of a warehouse or forest in a remote part of France, they instructed revelers to park along a bank of the River Seine in Paris, triggering a surge in traffic that blocked the expressway. When organizers gave the command, all 3,000 of them walked into the expo underneath the Gare de Bercy freight station in the east part of town.

Heretik System at The Molitor, France

The gathering went on with no intervention from law enforcement, which fueled Heretik’s collective desire to make an even bigger statement. In 2001, they followed a similar formula to pack a staggering 6,000 bodies into the Molitor, an open-air, art deco-style swimming pool built in 1929 and classified as a national monument. With no arrests or violence, it marked a watershed moment for the European free party movement.

Heretik System parties wouldn’t remain free much longer, however.

Later in 2001, then-MP Thierry Mariani added an amendment to a public safety bill that spelled trouble for teknival organizers. Per The Guardian, it gave local authorities the go-ahead to seize the sound systems of unlawful gatherings. This wasn’t new to free party organizers, but other potential repercussions were. Violators could end up paying thousands of euros in fines — and worse yet, land in prison for three years.

Heretik System did what was once out of question: They transformed into a legal business venture. This new era saw them execute extravagant new event concepts with colossal production and larger-than-life art installations. One such venture was a collaboration with Troubles Fête called Alice at the Chevanne castle park in 2004, and together they would go on to host events at massive Paris venues like the Zenith and the Olympia.

Heretik's Alice In Wonderland party 10/07/2004

“Some say it was motivated by money,” said Jacques Prigent, the French intelligence agent. “But in fact, it was the only way Heretik could stay alive.”

While Heretik System’s most active years drew to a close in the late 2010s, the subversive outfit still throws the occasional party from time to time. Their glory will live on forever, though. Just as Spiral Tribe informed their philosophy, Heretik events inspired a wave of free party organizers throughout Europe in their heyday.

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