Public pipi: Paris opens first ever exhibition of pissoirs

They were as much a symbol of Paris as croissants and the Eiffel Tower, though they had more than a whiff of scandal from the start.

Public pipi: Paris opens first ever exhibition of pissoirs
The once ubiquitous Paris pissoir is getting its own exhibition. Photo: AFP

Now the much-mourned pissotieres or pissoirs, the dark-green public urinals that gave relief to generations of Parisian men, are finally getting their place in the city's social and architectural history.

The first-ever exhibition in the French capital dedicated to the once ubiquitous and notorious facilities opened on Wednesday.

But the metropolis which invented the on-street urinal had an ambivalent attitude towards them from the unbuttoning of the first fly, curator Marc Martin told AFP.

READ ALSO Why the stench of pee may never leave Paris


The one-man originals – with a rather phallic peppermill design – were quickly christened “Rambuteau's columns” after the aristocratic city official
who commissioned them in 1834.

Scandalised at the double entendre, “Monsieur Clean”, as he was nicknamed, tried to give the urinals a grander air by calling them vespasiennes after the Roman emperor Vespasian who once taxed urine – which the ancients use to bleach their togas.

But the urinals' success quickly spawned three-, six- and eight-man versions – and that is when the fun began, laughed Martin, an artist and photographer who is a specialist on forgotten urban underworlds.

“They rapidly became places for hookups that would be impossible anywhere else. Generations of (gay) men were emancipated in them,” he said.

Spies and subterfuge

But beyond the gay world, they also played a pivotal role in French history as a place of secrets and subterfuge, used by spies to make drops and by Resistance fighters to pass messages and weapons out of sight from the Nazi occupiers during World War II.

Some of the disinformation that fuelled the anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair, which rocked France at the turn of the 20th century, was spread through the pissotieres, Martin found through a decade of research.

But it was their reputation for illicit encounters that piqued the interest and the pens of writers from Verlaine and Rimbaud to Celine.

Some scholars even believe Proust may have enjoyed pongy pleasures in their stalls.

Martin said they were “an incredible vector in social and sexual mixing”, particularly the three-man version, where the man in “the highly strategic middle stall was usually there to do everything but go to the toilet”.

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An attempt to revive the more modern uritrottoir has had mixed success. Photo: AFP

Martin said his own fascination with them – he has also written an acclaimed book on the subject – began because he had the “first sensations” about his own sexuality “just as they were being closed down” in the early 1980s.

Like smell, scandal lingers

Only one remains in Paris, just outside the walls of the Sante prison, an unconscious symbolic warning, Martin insisted, “of where your behaviour might land you”.

Like their ripe smell, the taboo lingers, with all of the city's major museums holding their noses at the idea of staging the show, which has found a home at the Point Ephemere arts space by the trendy Canal St Martin.

The show will travel to New York's Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art next year after already having an extended run at the Schwules Museum in Berlin.

“It's a shame to sweep this little human story under the carpet,” Martin said.

Despite endless campaigns for their closure on grounds of “social hygiene”, pissoirs were a potent if smelly symbol of the City of Lights, he said.

Hollywood legend Alfred Hitchcock – whose “Psycho” offered the first footage of a flushing toilet in a mainstream Hollywood film – was a fan, insisting on meeting journalists at one for his interviews during a 1969 Paris visit.

The exhibition also includes touching testimony from the urinals' former users, including one old man who admits for the first time that he met his life's partner in one.

'Such an adventure!'

Another, 73-year-old Jean-Pierre, was positively misty-eyed about them. “I was touched up by dancers, fashion designers, actors and singers in them.. You could meet someone in a smelly urinal and a few minutes later be in their sumptuous apartment. It was such an adventure!”

An attempt last year to revive pissoirs on the streets of Paris to stop men from urinating against walls – a perennial problem – was quashed by feminists who argued they were sexist because none were adapted for women.

T'was ever so, said Martin, who said women have been “long forgotten” in the history of public lavatories.

In keeping with tradition, and Paris city hall's policy of free public toilets, the exhibition is open to all.

You don't have to spend a penny, joked Martin: “We could not have had it any other way.”

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Striking workers block Paris airport terminal, flights delayed

Striking airport workers have blocked part Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, with some flights already delayed by at least one hour.

Striking workers block Paris airport terminal, flights delayed
Striking airport workers outside Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris. Photo: Geoffroy van der Hasselt | AFP

Last month, trade unions representing workers at the Aéroports de Paris (ADP) – the city’s Charles-de-Gaulle-Roissy and Orly airports – called for a strike between July 1st and July 5th in an ongoing dispute between French airport workers and bosses over contract renegotiations.

A second wave of protests are expected next week, after a strike notice was filed for July 9th.

Tensions mounted on Friday morning as some 400 protesters staged a raucous demonstration at CDG’s terminal 2E, which mostly deals with flights outside the Schengen zone, as police officers looked on.

At Orly airport, meanwhile, some 250 people demonstrated “outside”, while a small group was inside.

The dispute is over a long-term plan by ADP to bring in new work contracts for employees at the airports, which unions say will lower pay, job losses and a reduction in rights and bonuses for employees.

The strike is being jointly called by the CGT, CFE-CGE, Unsa, CFDT and FO unions, who said in a joint press release that the proposals will “definitively remove more than a month’s salary from all employees and force them to accept geographical mobility that will generate additional commuting time”.

Unions say that staff face dismissal if they do not sign the new contracts.

ADP said on Wednesday that it expected ‘slight delays for some flights but no cancellations’ to services – but it urged travellers to follow its social media operations for real-time updates.

On Thursday, the first day of action, 30 percent of flights were delayed between 15 minutes and half-an-hour.

ADP’s CEO Augustin de Romanet had said on Tuesday that ‘everything would be done to ensure no flight is cancelled’. 

ADP reported a loss of €1.17 billion in 2020. 

Stressing that discussions are continuing over the proposed new contracts, the CEO called for “an effort of solidarity, with a red line: no forced layoffs.”