Cleanliness questioned: dirty Paris? Judging a city by its cover

Dirty Paris, really? – how true is it? Is it a hard-to-expunge reputation, or a sad reality? Despite their love for the City of Light, tourists seem to agree on the latter. I’m certainly not so sure!

MyFrenchLife™ – – Dirty Paris: cleanliness revisitedParis: adored worldwide

When I travel abroad, I pride myself on being a Parisian. I’m now well trained. As soon as I concede my nationality and the city where I live, the mere evocation of Paris triggers a bounty of emotions and personal stories.

Suddenly, be it in a shop with a sales assistant or a restaurant with a waiter, time stops for that person. A flow of descriptions of places, anecdotes from their last visit to Paris, are confided to me. Shared with a perfect stranger and a foreigner.

I indulge quite willingly in this cheerful exchange as I always end up, to my great delight, in getting good tips and local recommendations about the city I’m visiting!

It also makes me feel thrilled and gratified to hear people simply declare their love for my hometown.MyFrenchLife™ – – Dirty Paris: cleanliness revisited

Naturally, my conversation partners tend to not only share their fond memories but also their frustrations. I am never surprised by the claims. They are recurrent, almost cliché, in fact, among visitors who have come to Paris for decades.

In no particular order: poor service, the arrogance of the Parisians, lack of public restrooms, unsafe areas, and so on and so forth.

Dirty Paris? cleanliness questioned

As a matter of fact, I have just experienced one of these peculiar encounters in a shirt shop, in Little Havana, Miami. The store manager had just spent a week in Paris and was ecstatic about his recent trip. He had been to the Eiffel Tower:

“The Alain Ducasse restaurant on the second floor was so expensive but so good”.

And to make the image even more perfect I added: “Did you know the Macrons invited the Trumps to dine in that very restaurant last July?”

“Everything went fine”, he continued, ”but let me tell you, Paris is dirty… horribly dirty”.

MyFrenchLife™ – – Dirty Paris: cleanliness revisited

If my face had been an emoji at that instant, perplexed and dumbfounded would have immediately followed naïve smiling.

I agree Paris is not the epitome of cleanliness, but I would not have expected anyone to make it his unfavorable and lasting impression of the French capital! Indeed, on a daily basis, I’m quite furious when people drop garbage outside trash cans or don’t pick up their dog’s poop. But I have never judged a city by its cover.

It has never occurred to me to do so. If so, I would, for instance, prefer Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, due to the relative positions on the cleanliness scale. And this is not the case.

MyFrenchLife™ – – Dirty Paris: cleanliness revisited

Dirty Paris? all things considered

However, with this remark in mind, on my return, I started examining Paris from a different perspective.

  • People walk long distances in the capital.
  • They have drinks and lunches on terraces, even in winter.
  • They smoke on the sidewalks.
  • Almost every bank ATM has a homeless person next to it.
  • Market stalls bursting with fruit and vegetables appear along the streets of each neighborhood.

During my fifteen-minute walk from Porte Saint-Denis to Châtelet, I stumble upon prostitutes, Indian workers awaiting deliveries from clothing retailers on street junctions in Le Sentier, food delivery bikers, strollers, and passers-by.

And all of this in a street full of restaurants, porn shops, nail parlors, an organic bakery, and passages (to name just a few).

MyFrenchLife™ – – Dirty Paris: cleanliness revisited

To reach finally what used to be described as The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola. The backdrop of best-selling novel ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind, which now shelters the newly refurbished Les Halles shopping center.

The French capital is a vibrant place, squeezed within a relatively small perimeter compared to other international cities such as London. Hence the accumulation of waste and dirt may be more visible here and harder to control, as both live in harmony with intense human activity!

Dirty Paris: any solutions?

MyFrenchLife™ – – Dirty Paris: cleanliness revisited - notice of community meeting 10th arrondissement ParisOf course, it is not that simple. Who would want to have their immediate surroundings stay dirty just because it appears to be a lost cause?

Huge efforts and improvements have been carried out over the years in Paris in terms of urban waste management. And the official Paris website details an impressive array of actions and services.

As my friend Judy MacMahon (founder of MyFrenchLife™ magazine and possibly the most knowledgeable person I have ever known on anything ‘French’) points out rightly:

“…there is definitely less dog poop in Paris, these days, but Paris has lots of strong urine smells in the metro and other places, and not only from street dwellers. I still find Paris dirty, but paradoxically, I find the street/footpath and gutter washing system to be amazing! That system is so far ahead of most others anywhere in the world!”

What’s more, city dwellers have reacted to this criticism and taken initiatives to end the plight of ‘dirty Paris’. They’ve formed associations, funded and encouraged by the authorities, to preserve the environment, and to make residents responsible for the quality of life ‘outside their window’.

Many projects have been implemented or are in progress, such as the greening of streets, walls, and the planting of shared gardens and trees.

MyFrenchLife™ – – Dirty Paris: cleanliness revisited

I am certain that if tourists dared to wander further afield than the well-beaten tracks of Paris tours, they would be delighted to discover those achievements. I believe it is one of the many facets of a new emerging Paris for a cleaner future.

Paris: with a little help

Despite all these measures, Paris streets may still seem dirtier than any other comparable cities. In New York, the law is aggressively enforced. Dog owners who leave pet poop in public places face hefty fines.

Whereas, in Paris, there is only a 68 euro fine for littering, whether it be dog waste or cigarette butts! But, in Paris, I have never seen anyone caught ‘red-handed!’

This is definitively another issue in the struggle to maintain cleanliness in Paris. The law is not a sufficient deterrent.

MyFrenchLife™ – – Dirty Paris: cleanliness revisited

I honestly feel that describing the French capital as ‘dirty Paris’ is not accurate and does not do it justice!

Granted there are some problem areas that may deserve that description. And it goes without saying that this concerns everyone. But the actions of many will be required to make a positive contribution.

Do you think that Paris is one of the dirtiest capitals of the Western World? Which solutions could be envisaged? We’d love to hear your comments in the box below.

Image credits:
4. © Saul Loeb, AFP via la Liberation
All other images ©Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier

About the Contributor

Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier

After teaching for 20 years abroad, I mostly live now in Paris, where I feel both like a native and an expat. I enjoy being part of My French Life™ as it makes my life in Paris even more meaningful and special. I have a passion for literature and movies. I share my thoughts in my blog and on twitter.”

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  1. Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier Nov 17, 2017 at 12:05 AM - Reply

    Welcom’ to Paris (@WelcomParis) – their comment :

    Super story Jacqueline ! On a beau vivre à Paris, c’est toujours intéressant de lire un point de vue bien écrit sur un sujet auquel on pense peu mais qui est très important pour les voyageurs qui viennent ici.

  2. Katie Wilkinson Nov 17, 2017 at 9:58 AM - Reply

    As always an interesting read Jacqueline! It has been a little while since I was last in Paris, however, i think as a capital city it is just like many others. With high populations in such a concentrated area, it is inevitable that the level of cleanliness is not always high!
    In a bizarre way, I feel as if that the “dirty element” about Paris almost gives it that extra edge feel if that makes any sense. It is, however, positive to see that steps are being made to change this image of the capital with the various incentives in place!

  3. Daniel Klein Nov 20, 2017 at 9:51 PM - Reply

    I agree: The law is not a sufficient detergent.

  4. Michael Dorman Nov 21, 2017 at 1:26 PM - Reply

    I’m from Toronto and have been visiting Paris and France nearly every year since I was 19 and am 73 now. Toronto is a clean city and haven’t found Paris any more dirty than my city. Sometimes we see things in other cities that exist in our towns but tend to be more critical of them in other places than in our home town. I have heard people in Toronto who have never been to Paris or had been there many many years ago and maintain outdated stereotypes about conditions that no longer exist or have at least been greatly reduced. I have seen parts of British cities strewn with rubbish as I have in the U.S. but am traveled enough to know that this is often a few neighbourhoods and not a whole city.

    • Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier Nov 22, 2017 at 5:24 AM - Reply

      Dear Michael, There’s not much to add to your comment as it is the voice of wisdom on the matter. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Charles Mercier Dec 10, 2017 at 3:58 AM - Reply

    Two things that you completely overlooked in this article – one very obvious.

    First is that Paris is MUCH cleaner in the morning with their daily cleaners out in force. Second related to that is because they do clean the streets in the morning, the Parisian mentality is that it is okay to leave or drop the trash because it WILL be cleaned up by the government which is what they pay them to do with their high taxes!

    • Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier Dec 10, 2017 at 4:27 AM - Reply

      Thanks Charles for joining in the conversation. What you say is true for some areas, the touristic ones principally. Others, like my neighborhood (the 10th), are not cleaned on a daily basis or not thoroughly enough. I don’t agree with you for the taxes. In Paris they’re not high at all, the city is rich, contrary to some cities of the South of France for example (which I know about) … It may not be the Parisians only who trash the city, but the homeless, the tourists and the workers from the suburbs also roam the streets of the capital!

  6. Dixie Reese Sep 24, 2019 at 2:55 AM - Reply

    Just spent 10 days in paris this month. I do not think paris is unusually dirty. I saw trash trucks every day collecting refuse on our street. Vive l

  7. Dave Austin Sep 24, 2019 at 4:49 AM - Reply

    I live in San Francisco.It is dirtier than Paris. The smokers and motorcycle noise is what bothered me the most..I love that city!

  8. Kerry Rose Sep 25, 2019 at 6:08 PM - Reply

    I really love Paris and France as a whole. Am learning the language slowly and love TV shows such as Spiral. Everytime I see lavender here in Perth I think of fields of lavender in Provence. In Paris we stay in the Marais… What a treat. It’s always lovely and warm when we visit the colourful Riviera too and the trains are efficient.
    It’s a great place if anyone is thinking of visiting and haven’t thought it any dirtier than any large city. There are always places not up to standard in any city. Kerry ?

  9. David Williamson Sep 27, 2019 at 8:21 AM - Reply

    I keep on visiting Paris. In fact I am going there for a day trip next week. To have lunch. Paris is so beautiful. Luxembourg Gardens, Rue du Tivoli , Boulevard St Germain, Parc Monceau, Place de la Concorde, Place Vendôme. I have never noticed Paris being any dirtier than London. J’aime beaucoup La France.

  10. Michael Dorman Sep 28, 2019 at 11:05 AM - Reply

    I have never viewed Paris as particularly dirty and I come every year once or twice since 1964. If you are an occasional visitor and come across a situation you don’t like then that becomes your view of that city or country. If you see only clean, good’ interesting things during your short stay then you have a more positive memory of the place. We also tend to be more critical of places outside of our home towns or country even if our own places are no different. I find dog droppings in Toronto despite a long-standing stoop and scoop law and most obey the law but just one or two here and there who cheat and you find dog droppings once in a while and if you’re a tourist who comes across a dog mess you might go home and say Toronto is dirty yet this is not at all true. My neighbour thinks Paris is dirty but after talking to him about it, it turns out that he equates older historic streets of Paris as dirty while modern steel and glass towers are clean. Give me historic streets over steel and glass any day. Hurrah, Paris.

  11. Charlie M Sep 28, 2019 at 2:20 PM - Reply

    I’ve lived there on and off since ’98. I walk everywhere and go back most years for a month at a time.

    It really depends on where you go and when you go. If you’re in the highly touristic or affluent areas like the 7th or the 15th arrondissements, yes, it’s very clean. Try Barbes-Rochechouart on weekends especially at night. I’ll take notes this winter when I visit again. (Pigalle/Moulin Rouge area, I think is pretty hard to keep clean on the weekends too.)

    Paris is dirtier than most European cities. The tagging has gotten really out-of-hand too.

  12. Carina Sep 29, 2019 at 12:02 AM - Reply

    I LOVE Paris! I didn’t see much or any dog poo or piles of cigarette butts or anything too dirty. The people are not arrogant or rude quite the opposite if you make the effort. Paris is an old city it has the layers of centuries upon it but it is a charming and beautiful city. Oh and I really like the Mona Lisa AND The Effiel tour.

  13. Sally Johnston Sep 12, 2020 at 9:59 AM - Reply

    When I lived in France, I was appalled that dog owners regularly failed to pick up after their dogs. It was almost normal. Though I did not live in Paris, in my time in Paris, I think “dirty” would be an accurate description, especially in comparison to the city in which I lived. This is not only due to more visible markers like dog poop, overflowing litter bins, and cigarette butts, but things like nasty smells and the er… interesting foreign liquids I saw in metro stations.

    I’m sure it didn’t help that we were travelling in the height of tourist season when the population swells and hot weather exacerbates nasty smells. I think I also associated the smell of smoke with dirt as well, as it fills the fresh air with a nasty odour in my opinion. Coming from somewhere where smoking is not normal and smoking regulations are much more strict, it was a huge culture (and health) shock.

    I come from a relatively large city in Canada, for context, and have travelled to a number of other major cities. Surprisingly, I found Paris to be dirtier than NYC (even after meeting a rat in the subway there!).

  14. Susan Magnuson Jan 26, 2021 at 4:07 AM - Reply

    Paris is filthy. No doubt. Why do French people want to look and smell this filth? Do they really think their sending a tax message to the powers that be? They have to hire more trash workers that have to be paid, right? So if the people used garbage cans and picked up their and others dog poop then the city would not have to employ as many city workers to clean up the streets and sidewalks, so less taxes are needed to pay for them. Plus controlling the rat populations? Or am I a ignorant American who doesn’t want to smell and walk on poop?

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