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Paris came up with a new answer to an old problem. Parisians rank this particular problem as one of the city's worst, although many do not like the mayor's solution. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley investigates.
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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: An accordion player is entertaining tourists on the Ile Saint-Louis, one of the most historic and picturesque neighborhoods in Paris. But these days, it's not the architecture or history of the island that's drawing people's attention...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Laughter) Absolument, oui.
BEARDSLEY: ...But a square red structure near the riverbank. You could mistake it for a mailbox if it weren't for a sign with a cartoon figure of a man relieving himself.
ANDREE LEFEBRE: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "It's disgusting. And it's going to smell in the heat," says Ile Saint-Louis resident Andree LeFebre (ph). "The mayor is crazy."
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Others who stopped to look at the urinal express similar indignation. "How can they put this in such a historic place?" asks one man. "It's embarrassing to have men unzipping and urinating in front of your children," says a mother.
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BEARDSLEY: At Paris Town Hall, I meet Olivier Fraisseix, director of cleanliness for the city.
OLIVIER FRAISSEIX: We have a huge problem in Paris of urine. So during August, we decided to experiment a new system to try to do something new.
BEARDSLEY: So far, there are only four of these experimental sidewalk urinals known as uritrottoir, French for urinal and sidewalk. They're eco-friendly and have two parts, a receptacle on the bottom filled with straw and other composting materials and a top part with a small flower garden. Fraisseix says compost from the urinals will be used in city gardens.
CAROLINE TELLIER: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Ile Saint-Louis resident Caroline Tellier (ph) is walking her dog. She says the media is exaggerating the complaints.
TELLIER: (Through interpreter) Especially in summer because there are so many people partying here on the riverbank from early evening till 3 a.m. and drinking like sailors.
BEARDSLEY: Cleanliness director Fraisseix says most offenders are not tourists but Parisians. And anyone who lives in Paris is familiar with the stench that often greets you when you're walking down a tiny street or under a bridge. American student Rose Gilbert (ph) is in Paris for the summer. She noticed it right away.
ROSE GILBERT: Just when I got here, I was very surprised. I saw people peeing all over the place - on trees, on bridges. And I was kind of taken aback.
BEARDSLEY: But the city of Paris is now focusing with renewed vigor on what it calls pipi sauvage, or wild peeing. Urinating in public now draws an $85 fine. More than 5,000 people have been fined this year.
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BEARDSLEY: Back on Ile Saint-Louis, a tourist boat glides along the Seine River just below the uritrottoir. I sit on a nearby bench and wonder if anyone would use it in broad daylight. Suddenly, a well-dressed man sidles up to it. Afterwards, Dr. Jean-Marc Razafimandimby tells me about the experience.
JEAN-MARC RAZAFIMANDIMBY: (Through interpreter) It was a little weird. There are people around you. But it didn't smell at all, and it was very convenient.
BEARDSLEY: Most recently, the urinals have come under attack from feminists, who blocked two of them with cement. The women said authorities were sending a message that men owned the streets and could freely expose themselves in public. The city says the urinals are actually meant to free up space for women in 450 public toilets. Cleanliness chief Fraisseix says they may move the controversial uritrottoir from Ile Saint-Louis but they won't give up the fight against what he calls the intolerable problem of pipi in Paris.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE LAB BEATS' "PINEAPPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.