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Sanisette Public Toilets

Forget pissoirs and hole-in-the-floor squat toilets. In today's Paris, public 'sanisettes' are high-tech, self-cleaning, and mostly free. Here's what they look like and how to use them.

Paris Sanisette public toilet

ABOVE: This sanisette is near the Opéra Bastille (the glass building behind the tree).

Not so many decades ago, the phrase "Paris public toilets" evoked images of smelly streetcorner pissoirs, hole-in-the-floor squat toilets at neighborhood cafés, and lavatories ruled by female attendants with the demeanor of prison guards.

Today, nearly all of the vespasiennes or pissoirs are gone, and tourists of both sexes are served by modern, self-cleaning toilets known as sanisettes on boulevards and in parks throughout the city.

Parisian sanisettes come in several styles, but all have the same basic design:

  • You press a button to open the door. When you step inside, a sensor in the floor causes the door to close and lock.

  • You do your business, then open the door and exit.

  • The door closes again, the toilet is automatically cleaned and disinfected by a motorized mechanism, and a green light signals that the lavatory is ready for the next user.

In the past, sanisettes were pay toilets, but the city of Paris began converting them to free operation in February, 2006. Free toilets are identified by a sign that reads "Toilettes - Accès Gratuit." (Toilets in the suburbs usually aren't free, so if you venture outside of Paris,  keep a few 20-cent coins on hand for emergencies.)

Here are a few more things you should know:

  • Sanisettes are normally open from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. After 2200 hours, you'll need to find a café or the nearest wall.

  • For safety reasons, children under 10 shouldn't use sanisettes without an adult companion. (There have been reports of sanisettes beginning the cleaning cycle with small, lightweight children trapped inside.)

  • In addition to sanisettes, the city of Paris has two dozen public lavatories that are open from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 1 p.m. until 6:15 p.m. The lavatories have attendants and are mostly located near major public buildings and tourist attractions.

  • Older sanisettes aren't wheelchair-accessible, but the newest models are.

  • Sanisettes are complex, high-tech devices, and you may encounter one that's out of order. If that happens, look for another one, or head for the nearest café.

  • dead mouse in Paris public toiletSanisettes are clean, but they can come with surprises, such as the dead mouse that we saw crushed under a sanisette's door near the Bastille. Also, the door opens automatically after 15 minutes, so don't plan to read the collected works of Proust while you're perched on the biffy.

How to use a sanisette:

Paris sanisette public toilet control panel

Sanisette buttons, Paris

Step 1:

Check the control panel to see if the sanisette is occupied. If the red light is off or a sign says "Libre," the toilet is ready for action.

Press the button to open the door. If the door doesn't open and the booth isn't labeled "accés gratuit," you'll need to insert two 20-cent coins.

(Note: Control panels vary in appearance, as you can see from the photos above.)


Paris public toilet

Step 2:

Once you're inside, wait for the door to close, then use the toilet. There's no need to flush--the sanisette will do that for you.

(See the white panel behind the toilet? After you leave, the panel will open, and a robotic hand will come out to scrub and disinfect the toilet.)


Inside a Paris sanisette

Step 3:

After you've finished your business with the WC, stick your hands into the receptacle below the mirror. The sanisette will squirt your hands with soap and water (assuming that the device is working correctly), and a few seconds later a hot-air blower will dry your hands.

When you're ready to leave, open the door from the inside and step out. The door will close after a short interval, and the robotic attendant will prepare the booth for the next occupant in about 60 seconds.