The Global Politics of Parisian Public Toilets

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The pretty-much localized Parisian institution of “Madame Pipî” is about to go global and it’s not a pretty site.  You would know who Madame Pipi is if you have ever used a public toilet in one of Paris’s mandatory monuments such as Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame or Etoile or in one of the main train stations like Gare de Nord, Gare de Lyon, etc.  They are the ladies who take your 50 centimes and give you a toilet token.

Madame Pipi at work.
Madame Pipi at work.

They clean and manage the city’s public toilet facilities.  In doing so, they represent a veritable French institution that dates back to the late 19th century.  Their thankless job is not an easy one – they work long hours in dark (and sometimes smelly) places; handle all sorts of strange clients. They are paid minimum wage and, obviously, their job is not a pleasant one.  But it’s a job they want to keep.  And eleven of these ladies are taking their case to court.

The court the cleaning agents solicited in September 2015 is France’s Prud’Homme, which is the Labor Relations Board.

The Sacre Cœur cleaning agents protesting the loss of their jobs.
The Sacre Cœur cleaning agents protesting the loss of their jobs.

This all started in July of this year when their old employer, “STEM”, a sanitation company, lost its municipal contract to “2theloo”, a Dutch firm. The women are demanding the salary they have lost since July and the restitution of their old jobs.  The French Labor Laws do state that if a company is bought by another company, the new boss is obliged to keep the old employees.  When the city of Paris awarded the sanitary facilities contract to the Dutch company “2theloo”, they hoped that would happen.  However, this new boss says that “2theloo” is not a cleaning company (as was the case with STEM), therefore, this law does not apply. The new guy in town says that “2theloo” is a concept store.

I thought that branding a toilet cleaning company as a “concept store” was a new concept in and of itself until I did a little research.  The marketing angle of “2theloo” is that they want your public bathroom experience to be better and more memorable than your private toilet usage at home.  They have themes for different bathrooms.

Now here's an interesting concept - relieving yourself with Bambi watches.
Now here’s an interesting concept – relieving yourself with Bambi watches.

They have fluorescent-colored toilet paper.  They charge more.  They sell toilet-related goodies (did I say that?) and need their employees to speak English, something that is not in “Madame Pipi’s” job description at the present time.

“2theloo” has an interesting slogan – “bigger, better, bolder”. Their toilets are more spacious, soundproof (now that’s a plus) and 100% non-touch (not quite sure what they mean by that). They even offer a make-up area. “2theloo” is selling a bathroom experience and Madame Pipi was only selling necessary physical relief that needed to be sanitary and

Just a sample of what you can buy at the concept store -- glow-in-the-dark toilet paper.
Just a sample of what you can buy at the concept store — glow-in-the-dark toilet paper.

efficient but not necessarily pleasant.  That approach has worked for a couple of centuries but that’s simply not the case anymore.  The keeping-people-employed concept has indeed changed.

I have not yet sampled the “2theloo” bathroom experience out of solidarity for these women and their ongoing trial.  The former STEM cleaning agents lost the first round in September but are appealing and should have their second court date shortly.  The city of Paris says they will offer them other employment within the municipality but that has yet to be formalized.  In the meantime, they are out of work even though they were doing their job.

With the demise of Madame Pipi, Paris will lose its unique, personal approach to the public toilet experience.  “2theloo” will replace the historic touch with a commercial, heartless one. “2theloo” might be bigger, better, bolder. But it just won’t be Parisian.  And that’s a global shame.

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