There is no sign over the door. A surveillance camera discreetly monitors those trying to get in. Jeans are not permitted — or trousers of any kind for women. Welcome to Les Chandelles, the most exclusive club échangiste, or swingers’ club, in Paris.
A plush, winding stairway leads down into a bar and subterranean warren of velvet-walled alcoves where “Madame Valérie”, a brunette with a penchant for white silk and six-inch heels, holds sway from her “boudoir”.
Valérie Hervo, 53, has long kept mum about the goings-on in this “porno chic temple” for “le tout Paris”, as one reviewer described it. But now, to distract herself during the pandemic, she has published a memoir about the club she opened three decades ago just off the Avenue de l’Opéra in the heart of the French capital.
“It’s a universe of pleasures,” writes Hervo in Les Dessous des Chandelles (Inside Les Chandelles). “Sex is just the cherry on the cake … I get drunk just on the atmosphere.”
Habitués of this nocturnal playground, from politicians to magistrates and television personalities, will read it with fascination, no doubt — and trepidation.
I remember visiting Les Chandelles (The Candles) with a friend — for professional purposes, of course — in 2002, when I wrote an article exploring the old stereotype about the French having no greater goal beyond the pursuit of pleasure. The Gallic hedonistic streak, I was told by a professor of sociology, was responsible for widespread abstentionism at elections.
My first thought, I recall, was that it could have been a nightclub bar anywhere — couples sitting around chatting. Then a man emerged from a dark corridor putting his shirt on. Entering the same doorway, I found myself confronted by an extraordinary tableau: a naked woman standing with her back toward me, her arms outstretched and her wrists manacled to two bars. Men and women stood around watching, some of them undressed. From further down the corridor came a sound of primal grunts and sighs.
Returning to the bar, my friend and I met Françoise, 38, in a miniskirt and a lacy top, and her husband. “It’s not as if you are cheating on your husband, because he is standing there watching,” she told me, describing the experience they had enjoyed in the room next door.
Since those days échangiste clubs have declined — the business has moved onto the Internet and into private homes — but Les Chandelles has endured to become a Parisian landmark, now almost as much of a tourist attraction as the Moulin Rouge. The cost of entry has soared to $375 per couple, including dinner and champagne in the restaurant. “During these feasts [in the restaurant], an erotic tension spreads, soft and delicious,” writes Hervo. “Tongues loosen little by little, the conversation becomes bolder, the glances more direct, the touching less innocent.”
The party then moves to the “horizontal salons” — rooms with mattresses where unlimited mints and condoms are supplied free of charge.
Much as her clients seem to enjoy stripping off after dinner, Hervo likes dressing up in the pursuit of érotisme and “festive magic”: one of her themed soirées was dedicated to the 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut, an erotic mystery starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. She describes how, on other occasions, she has enjoyed placing macaroons from one of the finest pastry makers in Paris — Ladurée — on naked bodies, encouraging others to have a nibble.
“Sex is just the cherry on the cake … I get drunk just on the atmosphere.”
“I’m selling mystery,” she writes. “Knowing that everything is possible, including doing nothing, is an excellent stimulant for desire. The imaginary is sufficient for some, others abandon themselves, allow themselves to be carried away, taking the initiative.”
She zealously polices the entrance, where customers are told to leave keys, coats and mobile phones, and she once barred a British rock star — reputedly Mick Jagger — from entering just because he was wearing trainers and jeans. “That’s an outfit for chopping wood.”
Only couples are allowed in. Another rule is that they must leave together. At the same time, Hervo upholds what she calls a feminist philosophy, defending women’s right to sexual adventure, and sometimes makes an exception for women who want to stay on when their husbands go home to relieve le baby-sitter.
“Les Chandelles is a place where the woman decides, it’s the woman who is in command. She should not be a trophy for exhibition or booty to be shared but a goddess to be honored, adored. She should dominate, imposing her desires and whims.”
Under an “imperative for discretion” Hervo does not name the politicians who are known to have disported themselves in the salons. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, visited the club before being disgraced over an encounter with a hotel maid in New York. But contrary to press reports years ago, Strauss-Kahn, more of a “harasser” than a true libertin, was never a regular, insisted Hervo.
Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, admitted visiting in 2009, long before he entered the government: this emerged in an interview with police investigating his alleged sexual assault on Sophie Spatz, a former prostitute — a claim he denies and has not been charged over.
“She should not be a trophy for exhibition or booty to be shared but a goddess to be honored, adored.”
One more recent regular is Alain Héril, a psychoanalyst friend of Hervo, who drops in often for a drink. “There’s something very childish about the place,” he enthused in Le Parisien.
For Hervo, though, “it’s like theater” — and sometimes farce: she has had to deal with men turning up with their mistresses without realizing that their wives are in the room next door — with their lovers.
One couple once confided that they put a notice each week on the fridge at home indicating what days they would come to the club so that their daughter, just as much of a “libertine”, would not cross paths with them there.
One day a man arrived with his mistress, confiding in Hervo that his wife was in bed at home with a temperature. An hour later the wife arrived with a boyfriend, urging Hervo not to mention her visit the next time she came with her husband: “He’s away on a business trip and thinks I’m at home with the flu.” Hervo went next door to alert the husband, discreetly leading him to the emergency exit.
Another regular was a plastic surgeon who came up to her one evening on the dance floor: “In between wiggling his hips to the music, he said, ‘Wonderful evening, Valérie, if only I had 10 percent of your clients, I’d be very rich’.”
Forced to close in the first wave of the pandemic, Les Chandelles reopened last summer. But Hervo found that there is nothing very mysterious — let alone sexy — about wearing a surgical mask. She decided to bring down the shutters once more. She hopes to reopen soon.
In the meantime, Hervo, a divorced farmer’s daughter, is living a quieter life in the countryside west of Paris, where she offers counseling as a couples therapist and “analyste psycho-organique”.
Matthew Campbell is a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times of London