Must Paris' les dames pipi go?

Tourists look at the work of painters in Place du Tertre in the Montmartre district of Paris on August 16, 2015. (Patrick Kovarik / AFP/Getty Images)
Tourists look at the work of painters in Place du Tertre in the Montmartre district of Paris on August 16, 2015. (Patrick Kovarik / AFP/Getty Images)

Eleven women have caught the attention of the thousands of tourists visiting Paris' celebrated Montmartre neighborhood. They are les dames pipi — the peepee ladies. Though their name suggests an avant-garde theatrical troupe, they instead represent the rearguard of one of France's less glorious but still vital professions: the women who clean and service the city's public restrooms.

Since July 1, the dames pipi have formed a picket line at the public toilets in Montmartre, blocking access to the facilities. Anyone who has ever pounded the Parisian pavements in pursuit of a loo can appreciate the consequences. Desperate tourists are besieging nearby restaurants and cafes, which limit access to their frequently dubious restrooms to their clients. The minimal fee for relief is the two-euro price tag for an espresso, leading to the Personal Plumbing Paradox: The more espresso one orders at cafes to relieve oneself, the more cafes one must visit.

The strike's seeds were sown when the city government, led by socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo, outsourced management of its public toilets to the Dutch firm 2theloo. Advertising itself as a "toilet concept company," 2theloo has but one mission: "to make the absolute most of your toilet break. No matter where you are." Even Paris. The city's public toilets, 2theloo promises, will be revolutionized into "spacious, soundproof and 100% non-touch" environments. They will, in fact, not only offer clean toilets but also artwork on the walls and a "toilet store" staffed by bilingual attendants who would not be out of place at Bon Marché.

As for the current attendants, the dames pipi, they are too old school for this new concept: 2theloo is showing them 2thedoor. The Dutch firm refuses to retain these women, despite the fact that most of them have mopped floors and scrubbed toilets for decades. One of the striking workers, Fiokuna Mahlya, who has been at the Montmartre facility for 17 years, insisted: "You just can't fire people like this, from one day to the next."

The plight of the dames pipi is decidedly awkward for Hidalgo. Her family fled Franco's Spain, and she has made much of her working-class upbringing. When she ran for office last year, her well-to-do opponent dismissed her as a concierge, a disparaging reference to the many Spanish immigrants who clean and watch over Paris apartment buildings. The professional line between a concierge and a dame pipi is as thin as toilet paper.

Like so much else in Paris, the public loos are lieux de mémoire — places, buildings and events with long and contested histories. In 1834, a royal bureaucrat, the Comte de Rambuteau, sought to improve the city's catastrophic sanitary conditions — Paris was still reeling from the cholera epidemic of 1832 — by installing hundreds of roofless stalls in the city. But when political opponents began to call his public toilets "Rambuteau columns," their inventor rebranded them Vespasiennes, a reference to the Roman Emperor Vespasian who had levied a tax on urine (then used to tan leather). The emperor's name stuck to pissoirs everywhere, while Rambuteau's was flushed into history's sewers.

Modern enclosed and plumbed public toilets, many overseen by female caretakers, eventually replaced Rambuteau's iron stalls. Will Paris' dames pipi now follow Rambuteau's name into oblivion?

It would be a shame. These women have proved their worth, maintaining their facilities as a haven in a city where, when it comes to other public toilets, the ancien règime persists. In many a cafe, one still finds Turkish toilets — tiled basins with a hole at one end — crowned with overhead tanks that can erupt into showers, bars of gray soap bolted to the wall, and a single dank towel hanging limply above a yellowing sink.

Moreover, while outsiders might consider servicing public toilets a form of menial labor, it has instead been a kind of metier, a profession that demands experience, attention and character. Stationed in the humble cubicles at the entrance to the restrooms, accompanied by tip plates and surrounded by the tools of their trade — mops and pails, toiletries for sale and radios tuned to news stations to which they often offer running commentary — the dames pipi have not only guaranteed their sites' hygiene but also their history, embodied in a tradition that added a human transaction to a human need.

As one veteran worker declared: "We are proud of our work. There are no worthless metiers."

The women's case reaches official arbitration this week. Will 2theloo be able to dispose of them? If they are replaced by "toilet concept" employees, one more link to what makes France undeniably French will go down the loo.

Robert Zaretsky teaches world cultures and literatures at the Honors College, University of Houston. His latest book is Boswell's Enlightenment.

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