The Global Politics of Parisian Public Toilets

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.

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

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.