It was 1am and we were just leaving dinner at a friend’s house behind Montmartre. We were tired, but the taxi we’d called for never appeared. So we headed down to the main road to try to hail a cab, along with a number of other stragglers now wishing, like us, they’d kept Metro hours.
Within minutes, several men had urinated in plain sight very near to us; one had clambered up on a little raised platform with some shrubbery on it just to do so. Nearby, a woman yelled in French “You’re no better than beasts!” but the beasts took no heed. Faced with this scene, not a taxi in sight, we walked the three-and-a-bit miles back to our flat. This was Paris in 2016.
Despite its extraordinary charms, the City of Light can also feel like an anarchic, post-apocalyptic hellhole–people litter, spit and pee freely in the streets, as if the city were their personal lavatory, bin and ashtray combined.
Ubiquitous dog poo only adds to the fun, while young women unlucky enough to be stuck trying to get home after hours will know that the loutish menace only intensifies with the incessant sexual harangues of the litterers and the fowlers. So what, the French might shrug? C’est la vie, or at least, la vie parisienne.
But is it? The fun may finally be over for Parisian boors. On Monday, the city sent an 1,800 strong “incivility brigade” into the streets to try to curb the uncouth behaviour of locals and tourists alike. And while there have previously been fines in places for “incivility”, this time the officers will be in uniform, armed with tear gas and batons. Those caught fouling or littering can expect fines of €68 (£57)
If anything, this is too lenient. The degree of insensitivity required for unashamed public urination, casual littering, and unattended dog fouling is difficult to understand: it’s putting two fingers up both to other people and to the city itself.
The “public commons” nature of any metropolis can always be interpreted in two ways: for some, it’s a reason to take care and be considerate in space shared with many others; for others, it’s a license to do what you like and to hell with everyone else.
Unfortunately, in Paris, and to some degree in all big cities in liberal countries where we don’t believe in lynching or locking up litterers, the latter view has won out. But if I were in the brigade, I’d use my baton with glee, doling out a sharp rap on the offender’s bottom mid-foul, before slapping him with the fine. I only wish it was a bigger charge: you pay more for having the wrong ticket on the Paddington to Didcot service than micturating like an animal in public.
Paris, like other European capitals, has a long history of filth, germs and the battle to contain them. Cholera epidemics in the 1830s led to many attempts to make the city more salubrious. In the 1850s and 1860s, Baron Haussmann, acting under Napoleon III, tried to clean the city up with the unfortunate measure of pushing the poor out of the centre, while in 1881, Paris’s unbearable stench led Eugene Poubelle, prefect of the Seine, to creating bins that still bear his name. He fined those who did not use them, and quite right too.
London could do with an incivility brigade too. If the urban beasts can’t grasp the principle of consideration on their own, then they should be made to understand. A literal rap on the knuckles might be the only way.