The French Art of Peeing in Public – A Popular Parisian Pastime

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This is inbedwiththefrench’s Happy  Spring podcast and I probably should address a topic slightly nobler than urine, but I can’t.  I saw something on French television recently that absolutely blew me away.  It was one of those “info-tainment” features and the lady reporter chose the subject of “How to Pee in Public and Not Get Caught” – with video footage to boot.

This was part of “Le Grand Journal”, a very popular prime time program that is as close to “The Daily Show” as the French can get.  The sexy, cute, tongue-in-cheek  presenter did her thing, or rather, showed the men in the audience how to do their own thing – right under their own noses (and ours too).

The “star” of the video was a young gentleman with a cell phone explaining his 3 best techniques for relieving himself in public in broad daylight.  They all dealt with distraction – that is to say, he would talk loudly on his cell phone while holding a Starbucks cup over his

Guess what he's doing?
Guess what he’s doing?

you-know-what and doing his own personal refill.  The second method involved a rolled up newspaper (the paper kind; not a digital one) directed downwards – like some sort of funnel. And the last method was walking quickly and urinating proudly along a side of a wall while pretending to have an animated discussion with an imaginary accomplice.  I don’t know what shocked me more – was it the fact that French television was encouraging public urination (for men only) or was it the fact that this Parisian male was probably paid a hefty sum just to pee?

Public urination has been a problem in Paris for ages.  Any tourist who has taken the metro or walked down alley ways recognized the odor and/or has probably been a witness to the actual act.  In French, the act itself is called urine sauvage, which means wild pee.  The government has tried to deal with this issue in an orderly fashion.

In 1986, a Brigade des Incivilités, (roughly translated as a Bad Behavior Brigade), was formed to enforce sanctions for crimes against hygiene.

Who you gonna call?
Who you gonna call?

There are more than ninety agents who roam the streets of Paris trying to catch offenders in the act, and I mean really “in the act”.  The fine starts at 35 € but repeat wrongdoers might have to dish out as much as 450 €.  It’s interesting that the French agents are trained to be considerate when they are giving an offender a ticket.   They allow him to finish his business before they begin their discussion.  (I doubt if they shake hands though.)
The Bad Behavior Brigade hands out over 2000 tickets yearly but that does not seem to diminish the practice.  Fining dog owners though has made a difference in the amount of dog poop you find on the streets.  It looks like Parisian poodles are more disciplined than their male owners.

Here's the Sanisette, the free public toilets in Paris; not as much fun as peeing in the gutter though.
Here’s the Sanisette, the free public toilets in Paris.

In their continuing “anti-pipi” effort, the government has also installed over 400 public toilets in the city.  Since 2006, they are absolutely free to use. These chocolate-colored pods are called Sanisettes, a very hygienic sounding name.  They are modern, spacious and bright.  They even recycle rain water.  I know that tourists use them, but I have yet to see a “native” actually “go” inside.
What’s more is that Parisian sanitation workers clean and spray thousands of square meters and sidewalks daily.  But that does not seem to be effective at all.  In fact, I actually saw a sanitation worker urinate in a gutter while he was working! (This is where I would make a pun about hoses, but I’ll resist the temptation.)
So, the moral of this story?  There really isn’t any.  In the end, we can surmise that Frenchmen are bound by some cultural imperative to relieve themselves in the street.  They are following ancient rules that are embedded in their DNA; nothing can stop them – not even Bad Behavior Brigades or Sanisettes.  This is their story and they’re sticking to it.  The rest of us can just watch – and wonder.

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