Finding les Toilettes in Paris

The case for a public bathroom system in France’s capital

“gray steel faucet” by Dan Watson on Unsplash

“The restroom thus becomes a tool for figuring out just how a society functions — what it values, how it separates people from one another, and the kinds of trade-offs that come to be made.”
-Harvey Moltoch.

Pacing the Jardin des Tuileries, I tugged at countless doors to find them all locked. Turning left, adrenaline pumping and time running out, I ducked into the Louvre Museum where I found what I needed: a gray rectangle labeled ‘Toilettes’. I expected the American plastic and tile public bathrooms I knew, but was instead surprised by a bright room with oak walls, colorful toilet paper on display, and what looked like a metro gate. I inserted two euros for a basic cabin and was escorted by an attendant to a newly cleaned stall.

Ah, bliss.

The entrance of a Point WC location, with a gate that opens when two euros are inserted.

An alternate realm from the unkempt and often toilet-paper deprived public stalls of the US and China, this perfumed bathroom is part of a Parisian chain called Point WC. The company sells designer bathroom products and Paris contracted them to manage restrooms citywide. In select locations like the Notre Dame, their facilities are coordinated with their surroundings, in this case tiled with ashlar slabs to match the church’s gothic architecture.

As I left my cabin though, I read a sign that struck me as strange: “Public Toilet”. This is public? By economics terms, a public good must be non-excludable and non-rivalrous. These bathrooms however, charge two euros per visit, effectively excluding those without the money.

Consequently, the excluded are left with few options. Some travel guides mention free single-stall sanisettes around Paris, but I encountered none during my stay. The other viable option is to visit a cafe to use their bathroom, but this often requires a purchase. For those strapped for cash or with medical conditions requiring frequent bathrooms visits, Paris’ bathroom situation can make public outings difficult.

Admittedly, Point WC locations are mainly in the tourism and luxury-shopping center of Paris, catering to those with the means to pay. And personally, I think it’s wonderful to have the option to spend a little in return for a clean, stylish restroom. But just as we have the choice between bike shares and taxis or tap water and Perrier, we should be able to choose between paying for a luxury bathroom and using a public one for free.

The lack of the latter option speaks to Paris’ priorities. Bathrooms have historically harbored racial segregation (as depicted in the film The Help and recently seen again in the Philadelphia Starbucks incident); gender inequality(there was no restroom near the Speaker’s Lobby in Capitol Hill for Congresswomen until 2011); and in the case of Paris’ Point WC, socioeconomic discrimination. In all of these examples, the rules regarding bathroom use reveal the intended demographic in a location. As it is, Paris’ bathroom situation sends the message that the city welcomes only the rich and that needs to change.

A case for government provision of public bathrooms

Making Paris’ bathrooms public would firstly increase their availability. The current model is incentized by profit, meaning that ‘public’ bathrooms are condensed in major tourist areas, neglecting many streets and less crowded areas. A government-overseen system would ideally place restrooms in locations based on necessity, serving not just crowded tourist areas but Paris as a whole. This alleviates a significant concern(that is, bathroom access) for the elderly, disabled individuals, and their caretakers, giving them more freedom to leave their homes and visit public spaces. Similarly, eliminating restroom fees reduces wait times, making public bathroom visits more efficient. At last, universal bathroom access will benefit the poor, including Paris’ growing homeless population. Aside from moral reasons for the government to provide for citizens’ basic needs, this would eliminate street fouling, an common issue in less frequented areas like Marais.

So what can be done?

It’s easy to simply demand the installment of x public restrooms throughout Paris. But traditional public toilets face many challenges of their own, including vandalism and drug use among other antisocial behavior, and of course, funding.

Instead, what’s needed is a citywide framework monitored by local authorities and enacted individually in communities according to their needs and situation. One such option is to implement a model developed in Britain called a Community Toilet Scheme (CTS). In this model, participating businesses offer their toilets for free use by the public. These establishments are held to standards set by local authorities, and they are compensated by the government.

Another option is for the government to build and maintain public facilities. In terms of availability, this may be better than the CTS as cafés and restaurants are generally clustered, whereas the government can determine the places most in need of facilities. This option may entail a fee, however I prefer paying a small amount to the government (which can reinvest the funds into public services and facilities) over paying the same amount to a private company who uses profits to further advertise their rainbow toilet paper and gold-leaf soap trays. Within this option are multiple alternatives, from large-scale restrooms to single-stalls like the famous Portland Loo. Benefits of the former include efficiency and possibly lower costs, while the latter may allow more freedom in terms of where they can be built and easier maintenance.

To Conclude,

Everyone deserves a place to relieve themselves in a dignified way when nature calls. For most of us, this doesn’t mean a boutique-style restroom with tighter security than the Paris metro system. Known for your comprehensive social security and impassioned labor grèves, you should make it your next priority to ensure that this basic need is met for those at all levels of society.