Paris’ public toilets … few and far between …

You are a tourist in Paris and you have had to rush back to your hotel to use the toilet? Believe me, this happens to very many. It even happens to us who live here in Paris that we have to rush home, because this city is famous for the lack of public amenities. The […]

A rose is a rose is a rose, and so indeed is a toilet (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

A rose is a rose is a rose,but what about a toilet? (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

You are a tourist in Paris and you have had to rush back to your hotel to use the toilet? Believe me, this happens to very many. It even happens to us who live here in Paris that we have to rush home, because this city is famous for the lack of public amenities.

The good news is that there has been an effort to correct this with the placing of free individual toilets on our streets. (Here below is a photo of one and it is called a sanisette.)

A Paris sanisette (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

A Paris sanisette (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

The bad news is that there are not many of them.

public toilet paris

First in your mind when you do find one will be whether the toilet will be clean and whether it will be safe for you to go in there. For example won’t the door fling open when you are not exactly presentable?

They are clean, yes. This is because after each use the toilet is automatically flushed, the bowl being given a wash down inside and out too.

And yes (and I do hope I am not now putting my foot in it!) they are safe in that once the door is closed no one will be able to come in.

This is how the toilet works:

Outside on the door a green light will signal that the toilet is free: obviously, a red light signals the opposite. If it is free one presses a button and the door slides open. Inside there will be two buttons: one will show two arrows pointing inwards and the other will show two arrows pointing outwards. The latter is for opening the door when one wants to leave. Pressing the other one on entering the toilet, the door will slide shut and lock, the red light on the outside then going on. If you do have to get out fast and the door remains closed although you are pushing the button frantically, there is a large red handle for opening the door in the event of an emergency.

Once nature’s call has been seen to one has to decide whether a large flush or a small flush is needed, which is, yes, in order to save water and the environment, and just like in most toilets in hotels or in airports and train stations these days, one presses either the larger lever or the small one. However, the toilet will not flush. It will not flush until you have stepped out and the door has closed behind you. You will therefore not hear, or see, it flush, but know that it will indeed flush and the toilet will be cleaned up and ready for the next user.

You may find it interesting to know that the current public toilet is a third version.

The first version had a most unfortunate flushing system in that the toilet’s flushing mechanism was triggered when there was no longer weight on the floor, in other words the user had left the toilet, and it was not just a flushing of the bowl, but the entire toilet was swirled around for a wash down. In other words the toilet disappeared into the ceiling. This meant that if anyone should still be in the toilet that person would be sucked into the apparatus. Incredibly as it is, the town authorities did not think that this was a problem because those using the toilets would be adults and sitting down on the toilet seat their feet would be on the floor. Alas, one day a mother and her little girl had gone to use the toilet, the mother stepping outside to wait for the child to finish, and the child’s feet did not touch the floor. Accordingly, the moment there was no weight on the floor, the toilet’s flushing mechanism was set in motion, the child having been sucked in. And yes the child died. After this unfortunate incident the toilets were immediately closed and Paris was totally without public toilets until a second version was installed. Seeing there used to be a problem with the opening and shutting of the doors of this second version it too was replaced with the third and current version. There was another handicap with the second version in that one had to drop a 50-centime coin into a slot before the door would open to let you in, and as the city authorities had noticed that the toilets were being used mostly during July and August, in other words in the two peak summer holiday months, and therefore by tourists, and it was thought that they would not have the necessary small coin, a new design was needed so that use of the toilet would be free. Today, indeed, so it is.

I must just point out that shopping malls do have toilet facilities and these have a 1 charge. You may think that this is expensive for spending a penny, but they are beautifully clean and scented because each cubicle is cleaned after use. This is the work of the attendant. Once such an attendant was known as a ‘dame-pipi’ because they were exclusively women. Today, however, the job is also done by men or a ‘monsieur-pipi’.

Do know that if nature should call and there is no public toilet or shopping mall in sight, you can pop into a bistro. However, in fairness to the bistro owner you need to order something to use the toilet: a small black coffee will cost you no more than 2 if you stand at the bar.

In the olden days and indeed up to the end of the 1960s Paris had street toilets but those were for men only and they were in fact just urinals. Such a urinal was known as a pissoir but its official name was vespasienne, and below you will see one of them, a last survivor, which still remains standing on Paris’ Boulevard Arago in the 13th arrondissement (district) close to La Santé Prison. I’ve been told that it is still ‘operational’.


An old style Paris urinal on Boulevard Arago, Paris 13 cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

An old style Paris urinal on Boulevard Arago, Paris 13 cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

The urinal was given the name vespasienne because Roman emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus (AD 9/79) and Roman Emperor from AD 69/79 had introduced a tax on urine as his subjects in Rome had collected urine to sell to tanners.

The first vespasienne appeared in Paris in 1830. It was a cylindrical metal structure into which a man stepped. Open both at the top and the bottom, the urinating man’s head, ankles and feet were open to public view. And indeed so was the cascading stream of urine. In 1841 Count Rambuteau then the prefect (préfet) of Paris, the one in charge of the capital’s police and fire brigade, installed them all over Paris and the Parisians began to call them Rambuteau columns – colonnes Rambuteau. The name vespasienne dates from 1877 though they were normally referred to as pissoirs.

By the end of the 1830s there were 1230 pissoirs in Paris but by the mid-1960s, judged too unhygienic – and smelly – there were just slightly over 300 still standing on the Paris pavements. Those too would gradually disappear, being replaced with the sanisettes.

A little detail before I sign off: in French there is no singular to toilets. One always uses the plural: toilettes. One day with visiting Americans and nature giving a loud call and we being unable to find a sanisette they screamed with laughter when I told them that ironically here in France where it is so hard to find a public toilet one always speaks of a toilet in the plural.

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

6 Responses to “Paris’ public toilets … few and far between …”

  1. 6
    Marilyn Z. Tomlins Says:

    Madison, I will make it easier for myself and tell you what I do not like about Paris.

    1 – Young men do not offer their seats to women and older people on Metro trains.

    2 – Being ignored when one walks into a shop. I mean one plans to buy something in the shop, so can’t the salesperson who is often the owner not smile and nod in one’s direction.

    3- Waiters nonchalantly asks one to get up, even when one is busy eating, so that people can squeeze by to be seated at the next table.

    4 – People not putting their hands in front of their mouths when they cough or sneeze.

    And that is about all.

  2. 5
    Madison Says:

    Your Comments

    Hi Marilyn! Just got back from Paris, so jet-lagged and Sleep is on-holiday. One particular names that fascinates me enough to visit Paris is of course, Marie Antoinette, and that’s how I found your website.

    What made me smile is, however, your Paris Public Toilets writing, which is SO TRUE! Oh I chuckled all the way reading your writing. If I may ask, what are the things that you love about living in Paris?

  3. 4
    Buthaina Says:

    Yes, Marilyn, I am well and fine, thank you. I hope everything is alright with you.

  4. 3
    Marilyn Z. Tomlins Says:


    I love that saying! In England we call it, having to spend a penny. In France, anything to do with the toilet is never mentioned. The French have such a hangup about toilets and bathrooms. Thank you for your comment. I hope you are well, Buthaina?

  5. 2
    buthaina Says:

    Nice report on Paris tiolets. I live in Cairo, Egypt, where there are no public tiolets at all. But no problem: Whenever I need to do what people should do (by the way, this is the Egyptian expression for the need to go to a tiolet) I go into the nearest hotel, restaurant, esp. fast food outlets, fuel stations, or malls (tiolets here are free). If I am touring a village where there are no such public places, I could knock on the door of any house and ask residents to use their tiolet.

  6. 1
    Hélène Says:

    Marilyn, pourquoi ne pas adresser votre “billet d’humeur” à la Mairie de Paris ? Il me semble que lorsqu’on a les moyens de financer Paris-Plage chaque année on devrait penser en priorité à satisfaire des besoins naturels élémentaires de tous les humains de Paris. C’est une situation que j’ai toujours connue et qui perdure année après année. Autrefois, les “pissotières” étaient plus ou moins fréquentables et elles ne concernaient que les hommes. Les femmes ne devaient pas en avoir besoin semblait-il. On les a supprimées pour des raisons d’hygiène et de “bonnes moeurs”. J’en ai encore l’odeur en mémoire … Moi, j’allais au café, ça me coûtait un “petit noir” au comptoir…

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