PARIS — To some, the new street urinals in Paris are a mere eyesore, to say nothing of the men using them. To others, they are no less than an emblem of sexism, still more evidence that men’s needs are put above women’s.
Now, protesters have taken concrete action.
Vandals plugged up two of the urinals — with cement — and took the opportunity to festoon them with tampons and protest stickers aimed at men.
“Are you a dog? No?” said one. “Then why are you urinating in the street?”
Another complained of a double standard.
“Women who expose their breasts to breast-feed are asked to hide themselves,” it said. “Men who take out their genitals to urinate are subsidized by City Hall.”
The two damaged urinals have been removed. On Thursday, where one of them had stood on the Île St.-Louis, the only sign of the controversy was graffiti spray-painted onto a nearby stone wall overlooking the Seine. It showed a clenched fist in a Venus symbol.
The city began installing the eco-toilets to address the longstanding problem of men urinating in the street, and the first ones caused little stir.
But when one popped up earlier this summer on the picturesque Île St.-Louis, detractors began speaking out, calling the bulky device ugly, unsanitary and too visible for comfort. At least, for the comfort of onlookers.
The other urinal that was targeted was near the Gare de Lyon. The others scattered across the city appear safe. For now.
Though the police were investigating, those responsible have not been identified.
Some feminist activists said the vandals had made good points.
“This kind of urinal, clearly, can only be used by men — and not any kind of man either, because a child, a little boy can’t use them,” Ms. Blache. “And I’m not sure that an elderly man would be comfortable using them either. So there is an unfairness in the perception of what is authorized or not authorized to do in public.”
She said that while men had “very broad” freedom to do as they pleased, women were “constantly being called to order” on their attitude or their clothing in public. Just this week, she noted, the French tennis player Alizé Cornet was assessed a code violation at the United States Open for briefly removing her top, violating a rule that does not exist for men.
Like other major cities, Paris has struggled for years with public urination. With varying success, city officials have experimented with ways to discourage people from relieving themselves on the street. These include mirrors intended to shame offenders, and hydrophobic paint that bounces urine back onto their shoes.
The city has also made public urination a civil offense and has a dedicated force of agents who seek out people who degrade public spaces by urinating or by other means, like throwing cigarette butts on the ground. In 2017, more than 5,300 fines of up to 68 euros, or nearly $80, were handed out for public urination, about double the figure from the previous year, according to city statistics.
City officials point out that Paris has roughly 450 unisex bathrooms, 150 of them open day and night, far outnumbering the urinals deployed this spring and summer.
Olivier Fraisseix, the head of sanitation and water management at the Paris City Hall, defended the urinals, saying they were only one of many experiments the city was trying. Public urination, he said, “is invariably one of the main issues mentioned by Parisians when you ask them about cleanliness.”“There is a problem of quick, daily urinating in the street, and it is for the most part a masculine thing,” Mr. Fraisseix said, adding that if more men used the street urinals, the unisex bathrooms would be freed up for use by women.
Some women argued that the city should do still more to develop unisex facilities, and that it should also work with cafes, hotels, museums and other public places to encourage them to allow women to use their restrooms.
“I am well aware that men are the ones peeing in the street, and that we have to fix that problem,” said Ms. Blache.
But street urinals, she said, “only further enshrine the idea that they are the ones who are legitimate in public spaces, not women.”
Several of the eco-friendly urinals have been placed in public spots in recent months as an experiment to counter Paris’s problem of urine-soaked pavements.
But protesters in recent days targeted two on the Île Saint-Louis and near Gare de Lyon station – plastering them with stained sanitary towels and tampons, then blocking them with concrete.
Notes left behind attacked Paris authorities for encouraging men to unzip and relieve themselves without cover in open public spaces – even though public breastfeeding still elicits scorn.
Police are investigating. No group has claimed responsibility, but the feminist protest group Femen denied involvement.
Equality campaigners and women’s groups, along with local residents and parents, have complained that the open-air urinals are sexist and discriminatory.
Without stalls or cover, the five experimental sites carry prominent signs showing a man proudly relieving himself in public. But no extra facilities are provided for women.
Feminists warned that authorities were sending the message that men owned the streets and could freely expose themselves in public – something at odds with debate in the wake of the #MeToo anti-harassment movement over how public spaces should allow women the right to feel at ease in the street.
“These urinals are designed to comfort men and reinforce the idea that women aren’t welcome in the public space. It is discrimination and reinforces the stereotypical, sexist idea that men can’t control themselves in any way, including their bladders.”
She added: I don’t know a single woman who regularly goes to Paris who hasn’t witnessed a man urinating in public – openly on streets, in the metro – which reinforces a feeling of insecurity.”
Coipeault said there were already hundreds of closed public toilets in Paris and men should instead be encouraged to use them, as women did, rather than being invited to unzip outside.
Chris Blache, a feminist and urban anthropologist, was not surprised by protests against the urinals. “Frankly, these urinals are a provocation to women,” she said. “It’s not about prudishness, it’s about gender equality in the public space.”
She warned that far from solving Paris’s problem of street urination, the open-air urinals reinforced the notion that it was fine for men to expose themselves and urinate in public, while women were still criticised for breastfeeding outside.
Blache, who has advised the Paris authorities on gender-equality in town planning, said she was not attacking the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, but rather the institutional sexism of technical teams who had not thought through the message they were sending.
In recent days, some male commentators suggested women should simply use the open-air urinals standing up with the aid of a funnel. Blache dismissed this. “If a woman did that, it would be seen as a provocation and certainly not as the simple need to publicly relieve yourself after drinking too much beer, as it is seen for men.”
Police handed out 5,000 fines to people caught urinating against walls or on pavements in Paris in the first half of 2018 – almost all men. But with 450 self-cleaning public toilets across the city, many open 24 hours a day, feminists said the extra public urinals specifically for men were sexist and unnecessary.
Chloé Humpich from Paris city hall insisted the city was committed to gender equality. “Paris would never promote a measure that discriminates against women … We regret that these urinals have been damaged. We hear the criticisms and we’re conscious of taking women’s views into account.”