By Anne Bagamery
In 2017, Paris handed out 5,381 citations for “epanchement d’urines”, or outpouring of urine. (Reuters: Carlos Barria)
As the French capital prepares to welcome the world for the summer tourist season, city officials are redoubling their efforts to cope with a longstanding inconvenience common to many metropolises: people urinating in public.
The issue is taking on more importance as Paris ramps up to host the summer Olympic Games in 2024 — a process that kicks off with a showy Journee Olympique on June 23, with sporting demonstrations, mini-contests and family-orientated fun at locations all over the city.
As any host city knows, the Olympics is a high-stakes opportunity to show off its organisational talents on a world stage — and to face-plant if things go wrong.
One might be forgiven for thinking Paris officials had given up on discouraging public urination. (ABC News: Freya Petersen)
While security is still the most significant challenge in hosting public events — France announced on May 30 that it would ban big-screen “fan zones” during the upcoming World Cup football tournament because of fears of terrorism — peeing in public is nonetheless a concern, and a growing one.
In 2017, Paris handed out 5,381 citations for “epanchement d’urines”, or outpouring of urine — three times the number issued the previous year, when Paris hosted thousands of football fans for UEFA Euro 2016. Apparently the fine of 68 euros wasn’t quite enough of a deterrent.
“I really had to go,” one offender, identified as Eric, told the newspaper Le Parisien. “When I saw the wording of the ticket, I felt like laughing, but I was also a little ashamed.”
But with tourist numbers expected to surpass last year’s 40 million despite recent terror incidents, the city’s struggle to keep clean and accommodate the need for toilet facilities is kicking into higher gear.
“The situation is not at all satisfactory,” said Mao Peninou, the deputy mayor in charge of Prevention, Security and Protection, whose portfolio includes public sanitation. “We are modernising our material and adapting our approach.”
The last surviving vespasienne, on the boulevard Arago in Paris. The name comes from the Roman emperor Vespasian, who built a network of public toilets in Rome. (Reuters: Charles Platiau)
Enter the Sanisette or ‘superloo’
The mayor’s office announced on May 28 that Paris was deploying 3,200 agents, up from 1,000 two years ago, to police acts of public “incivility”, including urination, round the clock.
Paris is also supporting several pilot programs in high-volume areas around the city to attack the problem from more technological angles. These include:
The stench of urine may have led locals to take matters into their own hands. (Supplied: Anne Bagamery)
- “Green” urinals stocked with absorbent straw and equipped with gauges that send a remote signal when the containers are full, reducing the number of collection rounds by vehicle and thus save on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions.
- Urinals on a lift-like platform that recede into the sidewalk during the day and come out at night when they are most needed.
- High-capacity portable urinals whose receptacles can be emptied directly into gutters and thence the city sewer system.
An earlier project called for covering exterior walls in vulnerable areas with high-tech paint that deflects urine streams back onto the shoes and trouser legs of the urinator. The paint worked but, at 3,000 euros per square meter, was deemed too costly to use widely.
The search for a solution
Through the years, Paris’s attempts to curb “urination sauvage”, or wild peeing, have produced some inadvertent street art — from the curved, spiked, knee-high fences designed to keep people from using building corners as urinals, to the elaborate Vespasienne public toilet booths that dotted the city from the late 19th century, of which only one remains (on Boulevard Arago on the Left Bank, in case you want to visit it; bring tissues).
The search for a modern-day solution has produced design and engineering innovation on a grand scale.
The icon of the breed is the “Sanisette”, the ovoid, self-cleaning unit made by the French company JCDecaux.
First installed in Paris in 1981 to replace the Vespasiennes, today more than 400 Sanisettes are in place in Paris and also in use in major cities all over the world; in London they are called Superloos. They are handicapped accessible, open 24/7 and, in Paris at least, free of charge.
Dames pipi fight back
Paris still has some 150 supervised public toilet rooms in high-traffic areas like the Louvre museum. Operated by a Dutch company and charging 1.50 euros per person, the facilities are clean and bright but, for many Parisians, a tad expensive compared to the old toilets staffed by “les dames pipi”: women, mostly older and foreign, who cleaned and monitored the premises and collected a small wage and even smaller tips.
When the city of Paris decided in 2015 to outsource and upscale the public toilets, the new operator — felicitously named 2theloo — claimed that the dames pipi were no longer qualified and sacked them.
Six ladies revolted in particularly French fashion: they called their union representative and sued the city for back pay and reinstatement. The case has languished in the labour courts and is not due for resolution until July at the earliest.
If all else fails, desperate visitors can always pop into a hotel — Parisian concierges and doormen are very understanding about the use of facilities — or a cafe, though you will most likely have to buy something: an espresso at about 1.50 euros is usually the lowest price of admission.
And if you’re lucky, you may see one of the many locally produced signs near a tourist attraction like the Eiffel Tower, pointing you toward socially acceptable relief.
Anne Bagamery is a Paris-based journalist.