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France

‘Madame pee pee’ on the barricades over Paris boutique toilets

© AFP file photo | Public urinals are long gone, but many Parisians still can't refrain from a tinkle in the street

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2015-07-24

A Dutch provider of upscale public toilets has been accused of flushing away French labour laws by refusing to take on Paris lavatories' longstanding staff, whom the French traditionally refer to as "dames pipi" [pronounced “pee pee”].

The city of love and light has a rather unglamorous reputation when it comes to latrines and general hygiene standards, with pungent urine odours and bog-standard toilets still a frequent occurrence in cafes, streets and metro corridors.

Visitors will have remarked that a sizeable share of the city’s male population have few qualms about relieving themselves in the street in broad daylight, and women will no doubt have experienced queuing up for minuscule cubicles with men’s urinals in full sight.

French officials have been at pains to clean-up this image. Earlier this month, the Agriculture Ministry published an online map of restaurant toilets, naming and shaming the worst offenders. In the French capital, local officials have installed 400 state of the art, eco-friendly automated toilet kiosks, which are thoroughly washed with recycled rainwater and disinfectant after each use.

Those looking for a less mechanized experience can always turn to the handful of staffed public toilets located at rail stations and key tourist sites, which are kept in pristine condition by the so-called “dames pipi”.

While Paris officials have invested in automated toilet kiosks, many of the city's oldest public lavatories have shut, like this celebrated Art Deco washroom near the Madeleine Church. © Photo: Ben Dodman

32 years a ‘dame pipi’

“Dames pipi” are an institution in France, where few seem to be disturbed by the term’s inherently sexist nature. The position is overwhelmingly staffed by women, though one attendant told FRANCE 24 that her colleagues included a growing number of “monsieur pipi”.

2theloo, a Dutch firm that operates some 150 luxury public washrooms in 13 countries, has made toilet attendants a staple of its premises. But the company has its own idea of how they should work – and its decision not to rehire existing staff at the Paris lavatories it recently took over has met with stiff resistance.

On Wednesday, a dozen “dames pipi” staged a protest in the Montmartre neighbourhood over 2theloo’s refusal to renew their contracts. Over the past 10 days, they have regularly shown up at their former workplaces near Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe and other tourist hotspots, demanding their jobs back.

“One of these women has worked there since 1983, the youngest for 15 years, and now some foreign company is kicking them out,” Abbes Keddir of the Force Ouvrière (FO) trade union told FRANCE 24, slamming a “scandalous and indecent situation”. He says the Dutch company’s decision to replace the facilities’ staff with its own personnel is a flagrant breach of French labour laws.

At the heart of the dispute is article L1224-1 of France's labour laws, which governs the transfer of employment contracts from one contractor to another. According to French daily Le Monde, FO and 2theloo appear to be in possession of differing versions of the document sanctioning the Paris lavatory deal, only one of which – FO’s – mentions article L1224-1.

Eiffel Tower loo paper

Toilet paper printed with dollar bills and the Eiffel Tower on sale at the public toilets run by PointWC, 2theloo's French subsidiary, in the Carrousel du Louvre. © Photo: Ben Dodman

The Dutch company’s Paris offices turned down FRANCE 24’s request for an interview, but a “consultant” for the firm told Le Monde that 2theloo is not required to take on existing staff because it is not offering the same kind of service as previous contractors.

“We are not a cleaning company, we do not do the same job,” he said, adding that 2theloo was marketing a “concept” that involved “boutique toilets” and the “sale of products”.

The company’s website describes this concept as “innovative retail service (…) with always clean restrooms, unique toilet design, and a shop with toiletries and gifts”. Spending a penny – or, in this case, around 1.5 euros – in public toilets “should not be something that stresses you out”, says the site, but rather “an extraordinary experience”.

Some of 2theloo’s premises are indeed extraordinarily kitsch, as well as being spotlessly clean.

The deluxe lavatories at the Carrousel du Louvre, run by its French subsidiary PointWC, feature a wall display of multi-coloured toilet rolls and a wide selection of bathroom accessories on sale from the staff, ranging from Eiffel Tower toilet paper to mini-golf sets designed to fit around the loo.

Customers willing to splash out 2 euros can also try a high-tech “Japanese” toilet, complete with incense sticks, bonsai tree and remotely controlled flush featuring a variety of cleansing and massaging options.

‘Far West’

This commercialization of public toilets has altered the nature of the service and with it the role of the “dames pipi”. In boutique toilets, the cleaner has given way to the vendor.

2theloo’s consultant told Le Monde the company would interview the protesting toilet attendants individually, “to see if they are capable of selling”. He added that if any are rehired, their seniority will not be taken into account.

This is not the first dispute involving the Dutch company in France. Earlier this year, a similar conflict kept public toilets shut for a week at several Paris railway stations, including the Gare du Nord, home to the Eurostar terminal. 2theloo eventually caved in, agreeing to keep all staff members.

Items on sale at the PointWC lavatories in the Carrousel du Louvre include this mini-golf toilet set, of dubious taste. © Photo: Ben Dodman

FO’s Keddir has slammed Paris city hall, which awarded the lavatory concessions, for allowing the Dutch company to flout labour rules in the latest dispute. City officials have said they will “encourage” 2theloo to rehire the toilet attendants when they meet on July 28.

Meanwhile, Keddir said he contacted the company to seek an amicable agreement, but was told he was “behaving like a cowboy”. He is now ready for legal action.

“This is no Wild West,” he said. “This is France, a country of rights. They are the ones behaving like cowboys.”

Date created : 2015-07-23

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