Economic Crisis Makes France's Historic Public Bathhouses A Modern Necessity

Public baths in Pontoise, northwest of Paris
Public baths in Pontoise, northwest of Paris
Caherine Rollot

PARIS - Their vintage facades date back from a time when apartments didn’t have bathrooms. For many people, washing up meant a sink and cold water. The whole family went to these public baths, regularly or for special occasions.

But as time passed, these public baths were transformed into nightclubs, shops – or simply demolished.

Today with the economic crisis, in those French cities that still have them, public baths are becoming relevant again – and officials must adapt the facilities to new patrons and changing demographics.

Michel Benesteau is the head of the oldest active bathhouse in France. Built in 1855, it faces the bus terminal in the center of Nantes, western France. Since 2008, the number of visits to this small establishment has increased by 40%. In 2011, 12,500 baths or showers were taken here. The bathhouse has 14 cabins, spread across two floors. To respond to the influx of “bathers,” hours have been extended since mid-January. “We are now open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., six and a half days a week,” says Benesteau.

In Paris, the number of people that use the city’s 16 working public baths has nearly tripled since they became free in 2000. Today, the Parisian establishments are always full, with around 900,000 admissions annually.

“We are back in the 1950s,” says Patrick Leclère, the Paris city official in charge of public baths. “Our facilities are operating at full capacity, and couldn’t accomodate any more people.” Found mostly northeast of the city, in the lower-class neighborhoods, these facilities register between 15,000 and 90,000 admissions a year.

Jacques Richir, vice mayor of Lille in northern France, says his city’s two public baths provide an important public service. Despite their operating and personnel costs – which can run up to 1 million euros a year – he says they’re definitely here to stay. Situated in Wazemmes and Fives, two of Lille’s poorer neighborhoods, the bathhouses have also seen an increase in attendance.

Around 3,000 additional admissions were recorded in the Fives facility between 2011 and 2012. Since the closure of a bathhouse in the nearby town of Roubaix, people drive 15 kilometers to come to the Lille bathhouses. Here, showers cost 1.05 euros each, or 85 cents if you buy 10 tickets. About 25% of users are able to shower for free, thanks to coupons distributed by local charities.

New kinds of “bathers”

In this traditionally working-class city, the public bath population is evolving. As well as people who have no bathrooms at homes, and pensioners who come here for the friendly atmosphere, there are now also foreigners, particularly Roma families from Eastern Europe. Both of Lille’s facilities, with about 40 cabins each, are much too small to accomodate this growing public.

The city is thinking about an overhaul of its public baths. “Our facilities are too old, but instead of refurbishing them, we are thinking of moving them closer to other structures, like pools or gymnasiums, which would allow us to save money on operating costs and hot water.”

In the central city of Lyon, there are also two bathhouses still in use, both built in 1930. There too, the number of admissions has increased because of the crisis, but also because of world affairs. “Recently, there have been more Albanian and Bulgarian refugees,” says Catherine Saunier, from the social care department of the city of Lyon.

There are also the impoverished regulars, who have no other choice but to wash in these public facilities, and the occasional construction workers, prostitutes, and students. “Our users are more diverse today than before,” says Saunier. “In the 1980s, our establishments were strictly for the homeless.”

In Paris, the arrival of “bathers” from different nationalities has raised awareness about the need for a structural change. This year the city is thinking about providing new services in the bathhouses: medical or administrative assistance, locker rooms, etc.

Lyon is also thinking about updating its two facilities, and developing new, smaller hygiene centers across the city. Nantes, meanwhile, is mulling the idea of regrouping certain services such as bathing and laundry.

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Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.


Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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