The first one we noticed was right under the window of our hotel room. It was 1995 and we were staying on a narrow street in the 6th. Actually, it was the broom that caught our attention first. It was fluorescent green and shaped like a witch’s besom. Someone had actually fashioned violently coloured plastic into the form of a twig broom. Amazing. (Does Harry Potter know about these?) So we took this picture, looking straight down.
On a later visit, we saw a huge demonstration (manifestation) on the boulevard Montparnasse. The police obligingly closed the side streets to keep out traffic, the demonstrators marched by with their banners, yelling slogans (the topic was education reform), followed by… the men in green. They picked up the dropped handbills and other trash, tidied the street up, and in a twinkling, all was as if the demonstration had never occurred.
On our most recent visit this past Christmas, we noticed that the men in green were taking on extra duties. Paris does not have the snow removal technology we have in Toronto (un “snowplough”?qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?). So, on an icy day on the boulevard Port Royal, three of them were out there making the sidewalks safe. One had a wheelbarrow full of road salt and the others had little dustpans. They distributed the salt along the boulevard using the dustpans as they went.
We even saw them at it on Christmas Day. We appreciated their dedication to the important business of snow removal on such a day.
And on New Year’s Day, the first sound we heard in the morning was a garbage truck making its way down our street, picking up the trash from the previous night’s revels. What a civilized sound. We snapped this hasty photograph of evidence that the men in green were on the job early in the New Year, keeping the city beautiful.
They take on extra little civic duties, too. Just outside St-Sulpice, a kindly man in green was giving instructions to a flustered woman in a car who was having difficulty manoeuvring out of a tight parking space.
The official name for the sanitation department is Proprété de Paris. The website lists their many duties. As well as removing garbage in 10 of the 20 arrondissements (in the other 10, private companies remove the garbage) and keeping sidewalks clear of snow, they deal with dogshit (les crottes), pigeonshit (les fientes), and public toilets (les sanisettes). (They don’t do graffiti removal, which is outsourced to a private company.)
Six nights a month, they are out there cleaning the Périphérique – not just the roadway, but the walls and the undersides of tunnels and underpasses. (You can see the equipment they use on this video). They have all kinds of wonderfully specialized machinery for cleaning.
If you’d like some numbers, here they are:
• 2,400+ km of sidewalk cleaned each day
• 30,000 public garbage bags emptied 1 to 6 times a day
• 1,500 km of roadway vacuumed or washed at least once a week using 380 machines
Did you see that? They empty public trash bags up to six times a day in busy areas. (Here in Toronto, we’d be pathetically grateful for more than once a week in a good week.) Years ago, when terrorists were putting bombs in garbage cans, Paris switched to a system of green-tinted transparent bags, held in place by a metal hoop. As solutions go, it is reasonably unobtrusive, and no exploding green bags have been reported to our knowledge. We’ve watched the operation and we calculate that an experienced man in green can make the substitution in approximately 15 seconds (loosen the hoop, grab the bag and tie it, unfurl a new bag and position it, then slam down the hoop again).
One of the most common sights in the morning is the flushing of the Paris street gutters. Here and there you will notice little bits of rolled carpet beside a street drain. No, that is not rubbish, that is a low-tech device for channelling the water from the gutters into the drain. We could write a whole blog on this fascinating process, and one day, perhaps, we will.
For the men in green, the fight against dogshit is an ongoing battle. Now, the conventional view is that Parisians do not believe in poop-and-scoop and that the city is one giant toilet for pets. One writer – Stephen Clarke – trades on this stereotype in the title of all of his novels (A Year in the Merde, Merde Actually, Dial M for Merde, etc.). The reality is a little more complicated. We’ve seen signs indicating that some Parisians find dogshit unacceptable…
… and the city does its best to remind dog owners to get their pooches to use the gutter rather than the sidewalk.
There are even official poop-and-scoop signs, exhorting citizens to do the decent thing.
Technically, you can be fined several hundred euros if an inspector catches you letting your pet poop in the public way (arrêté du Maire de Paris du 2 avril 2002). Similarly, there is a fine for feeding pigeons. Alas, old habits die hard and there are not enough inspectors to go around, so the men in green have to keep at it.
OK, they are not perfect. They go on strike – most recently in fall 2010, during the massive strikes that paralysed all of France for several weeks. But when they are on the job, they are highly visible and generally effective. And they have those wonderful brooms…
Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball.