Three Things You Should Know about Public Restrooms in France

by awhitne on June 7, 2011

I wish someone had warned me about the public restrooms in France. If you’re an American traveling to France, you should know a few things about “les toilettes.” Here are a few pointers, so hopefully you won’t be as surprised as I was!

Pod-style bathroom in France

Typical pod-style automated pay-per-use restroom in France

  1. First, you might have to pay to use public restrooms. I’ve paid anywhere from €0.40 to €1 to use a public restroom.
  2. Second, paid public restrooms often have attendants. If they don’t, they’re automated. Automated restrooms seem really clean because they’re completely disinfected after each use, but they also seem really confusing. I’ve never used one, so I can’t recommend them. But if you’re forced to use one, here’s an article that should help you understand these “pod” toilets.
  3. Third, and initially the most horrifying to me, many public restrooms in France are unisex. And I don’t mean one-stall. I mean a large room with multiple stalls and a section, vaguely separated from the rest of the restroom by two short doors, that houses urinals.
Two stalls in the same restroom, one for men and one for women

Stalls for men and women are often right next to each other in unisex public restrooms in France.

A cultural gaffe I experienced last Thursday that involved a unisex public restroom made me think about the differences in the way Americans and French people view sex and gender. Here’s what happened.

Last Thursday, the students in our study abroad program arrived at the château d’Amboise. After a two-and-a-half hour bus ride, most of the women in our group lined up outside the public restroom. Like other unisex restrooms I had seen in my past two weeks, there was a section separated by a short red door that I presumed included urinals. The chipper female restroom attendant ushered us in one by one. Everything was fine, until I was the next person in line.

Sign depicting a unisex public restroom

The American-dreaded unisex restroom sign.

“Entrez, s’il vous plait,” the attendant said. I was confused—there were no women’s stalls open. She gestured toward the red door. “Oh my god,” I thought. “No. It can’t be. She wants me to go into the men’s section.” I had no idea of the layout/stall situation beyond that door. Was there a toilet in the same room as the urinals?! Did she want me to USE a urinal?!  What was going on?! I held up my hands. “Umm, it’s cool, I’m good … I’ll just… wait…” I said in English, too nervous to try to express myself in French. Her brow furrowed. “Entrez, s’il vous plaît!” she said again, louder and more firmly. Unable to explain myself, and not even knowing what I would say (“Um, no thanks. That’s weird”?) I panicked and stepped forward. She opened the red door and pointed to a stall (thank god) inside the men’s section with its own sink. The urinals were unoccupied. I breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was fine. Until I remembered that I would have to leave this stall eventually, passing the urinals, and they might not be empty then. I stalled for as long as possible in that stall. I washed my hands twice. I fixed my hair. Finally, I decided enough was enough. If there was a man using one of the urinals, so be it.

“This is it,” I thought. “I’m about to see a stranger’s penis. There’s no turning back now.” I opened the door a crack and peeked out. The coast was clear. I walked out into the sunlight, glad to be as far away from that restroom as possible.

View of a street with a sign for a sex shop

Sex shops are common in France.

After leaving, I realized that the attendant probably would have urged any girl in that situation to use the men’s section of the bathroom for efficiency, because there were so many women in line. But I doubt a French girl would have freaked out like I had.

I started to think about why unisex public restrooms are so strange to Americans, and so commonplace to the French. Originally, I thought unisex bathrooms in France are pretty common because the French have a different view of sex and gender.

In the U.S., it is illegal to enter a restroom marked for members of the opposite sex. And it’s pretty obvious that even as children, the sexes are divided. Boys have “cooties.” My seven-year-old little brother tells me “girls are weird.” I thought, maybe it’s not the same in France. Maybe French children are not so segregated by gender, and so when they grow up and use unisex public restrooms, it doesn’t seem so weird.

Sign for a sex shop in France

One of many "sex shops" in France.

I’ve also heard a lot of people say that the French seem to have a more open view of sex than Americans do. I could see some truth in that, considering the amount of PDA I witness in France and the fact that during my 1.5-mile walk to school, I pass three “sex shops”—which are euphemized “adult video stores” in the U.S.

I decided to ask around. When I asked a 19-year-old French female about unisex public restrooms, she essentially said, “gross.” And when I asked a graduate student who’s lived in France for two years about the French and their views on sexuality, he said it just depends on the person, and even the region of France. He also said that the west (where we are now in Angers) tends to be more moderate, and that while the French may be okay with sex shops and billboards of naked women, they are not okay with women wearing scandalous clothes in public.

Side of a newsstand that depicts scantily-clad women

Side of a newsstand in France depicting a magazine cover.

Both of my theories were shattered. So, I turned to the Internet. I found various answers, from, “fundamentally the French are not as prudish about the idea of urinating” to the suggestion that unisex restrooms are “economical and space-saving.”

I can’t give a definite answer as to why unisex public restrooms in France are so common; I guess they’re something I’ll have to get used to. I’m just glad my awkward experience didn’t cost me one centime.

{ 3 comments }

shelley June 22, 2011 at 1:22 pm

hey anna – great stuff! you mom gave me the link to you blog. i hope you are having the best time ever over there! will e-mail you tonight – love you. shelley

sharon dalrymple June 29, 2011 at 12:22 am

whoa!!! educational and funny. what an experience!! hope you are having a great time, and i didn’t now it was illegal to use a bathroom marked for opposite sex. don’t know how many times necessity forced me into breaking the law!!!! :)

John (no not a joke) February 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm

First I remember the Supreme court here in the US ruling on the women who was arrested for entering the Men’s room and making a remark to the men in there that she would put the seat up when she was finished. They basically ruled that when you have to go and there is a line or reason preventing one using facilities marked for your gender in a reasonable time you can use the other genders facilities. Men’s and Ladies room designations in the US are just signs, there is no enforcement as any man who enters one in any busy location will inform you, I will nearly always find a women in the men’s at a concert or other event.

Second the French toilets with the urinal wall can be great for women too, my ex had been drinking wine and the line was long for the toilet in July (about twelve years ago) Linda could see the men using the wall and she just took my hand and walked over to the urinal lifted the front of her dress and although she did not hit the wall like we could she made it to the open pipe type drain that ran along the bottom of the wall, It got a few looks from the women in line and I think I was the only one who was embarrassed since all I could think of was the women in line who saw us walk over and use the urinal probably thought I was with a drag-queen I wanted to say to them “this is a real 100% Kansas female who had to pee real bad”.

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