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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

OPINION: Please stop saying that French people smell – we do wash every day

Well aware of the stereotypes surrounding France, French writer Gwendoline Gaudicheau was nonetheless shocked to be told she smelled 'surprisingly good' - she delves into what lies behind the cliché that the French don't wash.

OPINION: Please stop saying that French people smell - we do wash every day
See - we do have soap in France. Photo: AFP

When abroad, I – a French person – have been told several times that I smelled “surprisingly good”. When discussing these rather odd comments with my French pals I learned that it happened to some of them to.

Though I was aware of international questions about our hygiene, I genuinely thought the 'smelly French person' stereotype was a joke and widely known to be untrue, but it turns out a lot of non-French people still think we are a stinky nation.

While I understand than when visiting France, and especially big cities like Paris and Marseille, clean is not the word you’d use to describe our streets, the inhabitants are – generally – quite clean and nice smelling.

Where does it come from?

But the rumour that French people are not the fondest of water and soap actually goes back to before World War II.

At that time, Paris, like many other European cities, had very little indoor plumbing facilities – generally only in the fancier areas of the city. With no shower or bath in their homes, many French people could not bathe frequently and had to either share bathroom facilities with neighbours or use the bains douches municipaux (public bathing facilities).

Even after the war ended and the plumbing situation improved, the cliché remained and was even fed by British taboids in the 1990s.

 

At that time, articles were written addressing how the French bathed less and used less soap than the Brits after a survey came out in 1998. It said that each French person used 600g of toilet soap each year compared to 1.4kg for a Briton.

But what was not mentioned was the fact that at that time, shower gel was way more popular in France than it was in the UK, which could explain the soap gap.

Photo: AFP

Others say that the cliché was also kept alive by jealous competitors to the renowned French perfume industry. It is not rare to hear than these delightful scents are only due to the fact the French needed to come up with good products to cover up their bad smell.

Shower over bath

“I think that it’s the contrary, sometimes people’s perfumes are very strong and mix when in the métro and it’s then that it smells bad,” 24-year-old French student Mathilde told The Local.

But if French people love – sometimes a bit too much – their perfumes, it does not mean they skip the shower part each day. In fact, according to a survey issued last year by Euromonitor, French people shower more than Brits, though they bathe less.

READ ALSO: Perfume and pipi: The 10 smells that tell you you're in Paris

“Who has the time to bathe everyday, I’d rather take a quick and efficient shower and sleep more than spend 30 minutes in a bathtub,” Clémence, a student in Paris told The Local.

Indeed, bathing is not so much a French thing: it takes time and it’s not great for the environment. Though children bathe a lot, adults tend to only do it when they feel stressed and want to relax. 

It's also true that many smaller apartments in France are not equipped with a bathtub.

Remaining cleaning issues  

Though once the shower part is over, we may have some other sanitary habits to work on.

“Compared to other cultures, we are considered as quite dirty with for example people not washing their hands after using the toilet,” 23-year-old Inès told The Local.

 

In pandemic times, this might sound completely crazy but before Covid, only 75 percent of French women and 68 percent of French men said they washed their hands after going to the bathroom according to an IFOP survey shared by Le Parisien in February 2020.

On the same idea, only 42 percent of women and 31 percent of men said they washed their hands after using public transport.

And – in news that might strike a blow to the cliché of Frenchmen as great dates – one fifth apparently admitted to not changing their underwear every day.

READ ALSO: A fifth of French men don't change their underwear everyday

But for 23-year-old Marie, if the stereotype is much attached to French people, it’s also something you hear about other nationalities.

“I have heard it said that German people are very hairy and so smell,” she told The Local.

It's my experience that French people don’t smell that much, sure there are some with poor hygiene, but that’s also true of people in other countries.

Member comments

  1. I’ve never ever heard any one describe the French as smelly, but if you say, as a French person, that is the comment you’ve experienced I must believe you. It’s never occurred to me that the French smell except generally nice. The use of bidets has always been strange to the British it seems, one of the more sensible additions to a bathroom but completely absent from the average British home except as embarrassed smutty giggles. Cleanliness is the idiocy of the last 100 years and can be put down to the brilliantly success of the likes of Lever Brothers et al. One of the Royal family has, I read, bought a house in Los Angeles with 7 bedrooms and 19 bathrooms … What on earth do they do all day? Do you smell? Is your home smelly? Is your kitchen hygienic? It’s all bollocks peddled by companies wanting to instil fear and doubt to sell their products 90% of which are unnecessary. I’m sliding off topic here so I’ll leave it.

  2. It is something of a long standing joke in many English cultures but one I have not found to be true. I live in an agricultural region and we work hard…so people do get sweaty and can smell by the end of the day…that is perfectly natural.

    When I moved to the UK over 20 years ago people stank…using the Underground and buses in London was an endurance test…fortunately there too hygiene seems to have improved over the years…

  3. I spent a week in Versailles as a schoolboy at the Lycéé Hoche in 1952. I will forever remember the smell when travelling on the métro – Gauloises, alcohol and body odour. I have not been on the métro for a few years, but if my experiences in other parts of France are anything to go by there is no longer a problem!

  4. It’s something I have never heard any of my British friends say or even imply. The only Brits who I can imagine saying anything so unpleasant are those who still think Britain has an empire.

    Or Daily Mail/Express/Telegraph editorials of course. But then the truth is a foreign country to them too (-:

  5. Rob, with his comment on London Underground is very correct. It is much better but can still be a shock to the senses. The French no more deserve the reputation than any other nationality. It also depends on how much garlic we use.

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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