They Snuck Into the Panthéon and Saved Paris

The Panthéon. More vulnerable than it looks.

Once, in the middle of the night, six Parisian teenagers managed to get into the Panthéon in Paris. It turned out to be so easy, they woke up the next morning thinking: Okay, what next?

Les UX—The Urban eXperiment—was born.

Next was the Ministry of Communications—where, in the dusty basement, they found maps charting the catacombs of Paris.

They were set.

As they explored the skull-encrusted tunnels, the group grew up and gathered purpose. France poured all its money into touristy places, they complained, ignoring the small jewels of its cultural heritage. By now, the members of Les UX were so adroit, they easily could have stolen a few masterpieces for themselves. Instead, they secretly restored a forgotten metro station. A twelfth-century crypt. A century-old bunker. A World War II air raid shelter.

Appalled by the lousy security in Parisian museums, one member picked a museum and did a full audit, writing by way of introduction, “Here are some of the myriad ways I could have broken into your museum and made off with some swag, had I chosen to do so.” Instead of mailing her audit, she added a flourish by sneaking into the museum one night and leaving the report on the director’s desk. Less than grateful, he tried to press charges, but the French police declined to pursue the case.

Now the teenagers were grownups, and their secret club had 150 by-invitation-only members. In the way that nonprofits break into committees, Les UX set up three divisions: the Mouse House, an all-female group specializing in infiltration; the Untergunther, specializing in restoration, and La Mexicaine de Perforation, which put on clandestine art events. In November 2005, for example, Les UX returned to the Panthéon (they did so often) and after a session of rollerblading, screened American Psycho.

From a member’s jilted girlfriend, police eventually learned that the group had built an underground cinema complex (with a bar and restaurant, but of course). By the time a forensic team arrived, though, all the accoutrements were gone. All that remained of the complex was a note on the stone floor: “Ne cherchez pas.” Do not search for us.

The following year, the group grew concerned about the massive 1850 Wagner clock hung high in the Panthéon. Why was it not working? Jean-Baptiste Viot, one of the few members who discloses his real name, was an expert horologist working for Breguet, a luxury watch, clock, and jewelry manufacturer. He found what looked to him like deliberate sabotage—the escape wheel had been bludgeoned, maybe by a staffer sick of winding the thing every week. To take apart, clean, and repair the clock, he would need specialized equipment and, because they had to work in secret at night, the project would take many months.

Unfazed, Les UX members set up a workshop high in the dome of the Panthéon, complete with the necessary equipment, a mini-bar, a hot plate, bookshelves, and comfy armchairs. They also planted a vegetable garden on one of the terraces.

The project took nearly a year and cost them 4,000 euros. This was one success they could not keep secret, because now the clock would have to be wound again. So they showed the director of the Panthéon, Bernard Jeannot, the restored clock, and after that, their workshop.

“I think I need to sit down,” he murmured.

Jeannot lost his job, and a horological expert was hired to undo their repair. The Panthéon took legal action against Les UX. Repairing national treasures is not illegal in France, however. The only possible charge was breaking a lock on the grounds of the Panthéon, and it took the judge twenty minutes to pronounce Les UX not guilty.

They promptly snuck back into the Panthéon and restarted the clock so it would at least chime a few times for Christmas.

Paris is, in my opinion, insufficiently grateful to these people. We are charmed by Robin Hood stories, thrilled by Batman, but in real life we feel obliged to condemn them. Slippery slope, you know. Rules must be rules. Parisian authorities actually set up a police unit to track Les UX’s movements through the catacombs. Yet they have never stolen or damaged a thing—except the officials’ reputations.

Ah, well. This is the uncomfortable rub between human nature and human society. Bureaucrats feel obliged to turn into cogs.

At least some of the altruistic mischief has been forgiven, though. In 2018, Viot was appointed the official restorer of the Wagner clock.

  Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.