My chagrin at having to chase a celebrity story was somewhat tempered by the fact that it meant spending a couple of late-summer days on the Côte d’Azur
Le Gorille does not pretend to be anything but a quick and easy snack bar, but it is far from cheap, for two reasons. It is on the harbour in St Tropez, which is jammed every summer night with visitors peering at some of the most expensive yachts and richest people in the world, and it is the only establishment in the Mediterranean resort which remains open 24 hours a day.
That was what attracted Robbie Williams and his entourage on the last day of a summer holiday which supplied the British tabloids with acres of copy. Arriving at Le Gorille around 6am, they ran into another group of equally noisy Brits. A punch-up ensued, during which a chair was broken over the singer’s head, according to some tabloid accounts; others deny he took part, or that he was even there.
Williams himself has made a joke of the whole thing, and the management of Le Gorille is not talking. The local police would like their 24-hour licence amended, and talk of quayside disturbances does not help. The local newspaper gleefully claimed that by the time les flics arrived, the supposed hard men from l’Angleterre had vanished into the dawn. But the antics of Robbie and his mates have posed the question: is the glitziest fishing village in the world losing its class?
It is nearly half a century since And God Created Woman, with Brigitte Bardot and her gingham bikini, renewed the fame of a St Tropez which had already been celebrated by the likes of Guy de Maupassant, Matisse and Picasso. The rich and famous soon followed, and they still come: seen around St Tropez this year, among others, have been Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and the Duke of York, with his ex-wife and their children.
“We still have the cachet, and the clientele is the same,” insisted Antoine Mercurio, a tanned, youthful-looking 70-year-old who has been selling speedboats to the few who can afford them since the 1960s. “But their hangers-on are another matter.”
Mr Mercurio was not complaining so much about the people immediately around the celebrities. They are welcome to continue dancing all night at La Cave du Roy, and pouring £250 bottles of champagne over their topless girlfriends at La Voile Rouge, a “daytime nightclub” on the beach at Pampelonne which remains open in defiance of conservationists and the authorities. What concerns St Tropez’s tiny permanent population of 5,000, and local tourist officials, are the 60,000 to 70,000 visitors who pour into the village from neighbouring campsites every day in the height of summer to “breathe the same air as the stars”, as one resident put it. The single road into the peninsula is jammed for hours on end, and the charm of the port’s pastel-painted houses and cobbled lanes is marred when street cleaners, who work 24 hours a day in July and August, cannot get through the crowds to empty the rubbish bins.
“It has an adverse effect on our image,” admitted David Singleton, an Englishman who has worked for the Office de Tourisme for more than 20 years. “It is not satisfactory for the visitors themselves, particularly if they are family people on a budget. They come to us to ask what there is for children, and we tell them there is nothing. Backpackers want to know where the beach is. The answer is that it is 15 minutes away by car, and there is no public transport.” (The super-rich, of course, get there by yacht or even helicopter.)
“St Tropez,” Mr Singleton went on, “needs to reconquer its former clients, the very wealthy. They are still here, but they stay in their villas to avoid being mobbed by visitors who spend very little beyond buying the odd ice-cream. The message we are trying to get across is that in July and August, we are saturated – come in June or September instead. If you really want to see the paradise the artists found, come in February.”
This weekend the roads of France are choked as la rentrée – the national return to work and school – reaches its height. In St Tropez the change of season is marked by a “buy one swimsuit, get one free” sale at the Marin Lula boutique. But the strain of the annual swamping has made this “a particularly vindictive summer”, according to Mr Singleton.
Residents’ complaints closed down the local heliport, but that made things worse: there is no law in France against landing a helicopter on your own property, and private helipads have sprung up all over the peninsula. In the midst of the row over La Voile Rouge and other semi-permanent beach bars, pollution cost the resort its blue flag for water quality. Now there is misbehaviour in the heart of the old port.
Nicholas Azor, a colleague of Mr Singleton, was philosophical. “St Tropez is built on being a place where the jet set can break the rules and let their hair down,” he said. “There will always be tension between those who want to clean it up and turn it into Switzerland, and those who want to ride their Harley Davidson with a sexy blonde on the pillion and a dog on the tank, wearing no helmets and ignoring the speed limit. You can still get away with that here.”
Robbie Williams, in other words, is part of a grand tradition. Far from besmirching the name of St Tropez, he has helped to keep it the way it always was.