Why are the French falling out of love with the bidet?

For centuries, French people have used bidets to clean up, and if you are visiting, you might encounter one too. Here is what you need to know about this 17th century invention.

Why are the French falling out of love with the bidet?
Photo by Renee Verberne on Unsplash

If you enter a French home or hotel room, you might come across an item that resembles a toilet without the lid or water inside, or perhaps just a hose attached to the toilet.

These are bidets – intended as an aid in washing one’s private parts or to be used after defecating. For those who have never used one before, the principle is that you spray water on your underside, which helps you clean off after toilet use. 

They’re intended as a toilet aid, but some people also use them to wash their feet – ultimately in the privacy of your own bathroom you can use them for whatever you like, the bidet police will not come knocking. 

READ MORE: OPINION: Please stop saying that French people smell – we do wash every day

If you’re wondering if the word bidet is French, then your hunch would be correct. Bidets are a French invention hailing from the 1600s, and the term comes from the Old French word for pony and the verb “bider” – which meant ‘to trot’ – because when using a traditional bidet, one straddles the device in a similar fashion to riding a horse.

Over the past three centuries, they have become popular in many countries, so much so that Italian law requires that all bathrooms contain one. In Japan, bidet-style attachments, called ‘Washlets’ are commonplace.

They never caught on in the anglophone world, however (partly due to confused American soldiers and brothels) and in France itself they are also falling out of favour.

The French origins of the bidet

Originally, bidets had an aristocratic connection. They came about prior to the French revolution, and they were first and foremost seen as high-class.

In a think-piece titled “The Bidet’s Revival” in The Atlantic, author Marie Teresa Hart wrote that bidets were once so integral to French civilised life, that “even the imprisoned Marie Antoinette was granted a red-trimmed one while awaiting the guillotine. She may have been in a dank, rat-infested cell, but her right to freshen up would not be denied.”

There are even famous paintings of aristocratic ladies using their bidets – like one by Louis-Léopold Boilly featuring a woman straddling her bidet. 

Apparently, Napoleon was a big fan of the devices, and was known to have been the owner of a silver bidet.

Bidets made their way to the other social classes in Europe in the 1800s, alongside advances in plumbing. 

How do the French feel about them now?

Despite the former emperor’s preference for bidets, they have fallen out of fashion in France since the 1960s.

According to Le Figaro, they are rarely installed in new and recent housing in France. L’Obs found that only about 42 percent of French households now have bidets, in comparison to almost 100 percent just 20 years ago.

One key reason bidet usage in France has decreased, according to Vitrine-Banyo, is a lack of space, especially in city apartments – many families now choose to use their space to add a washing machine or other equipment. 

Others point to a rise in toilet paper, as well as modern contraceptive methods – as previously many believed that douching with a bidet after intercourse could help prevent pregnancy. 

Are bidets safe?

When maintained and used properly, experts tend to agree that bidets are safe and hygienic. For example, you should sanitise the bidet prior to using it to avoid spraying yourself with any germs that may have landed on the device.

If you have a vagina you should always wash from the front to the back, in order to avoid getting any fecal matter near the vagina or urethra. 

They have one major advantage – a much lower environmental impact than toilet paper. For example, if Americans switched to bidets, at least 15 million trees could be saved.

Americans against bidets

Bidets never really took off in the United States in the same way that they did in Europe, which might explain why a number of Americans tourists visiting countries like France and Italy have found themselves confused by the devices.

There are many myths about bidets that have coloured American imaginations for decades. These are mostly attributable to the experiences of American soldiers after the Second World War.

According to Slate, as soldiers visited brothels, they discovered for the first time the presence of bidets and began to associate the devices with prostitution, even though they were quite common in many French homes. 

This assumption, in addition to widespread American beliefs that vaginal douching could be a form of contraception and was therefore sinful, helped spread the idea that owning a bidet would be inappropriate in some way. 

In 1936, Norman Haire, a pioneer in the field of contraception, even noted that “having a bidet in one’s home was considered a symbol of sin”. 

American sociologist Harvey Molotch told The Atlantic that “all the power of capitalism can’t break the taboo, as the devices were associated with French ‘hedonism and sexuality’. 

Despite American conservatism regarding bidets, they became very commonplace in Catholic Italy, so much so that they have been included in legal building requirements in Italy for nearly 50 years now. 

READ MORE: Reader question: Are bidets legally required in Italian homes?

Article 7 of a Ministerial Decree issued on July 5th, 1975 states that “in each house, at least one bathroom must have the following fixtures: a toilet, a bidet, a bathtub or shower, and a sink”.

Member comments

  1. If they were really meant for cleaning after defecation they would be next to the toilet. But, despite your photo, most French homes equipped with them have them in the bathroom, and the WC is in a separate little room. I think this is another American and perhaps Japanese misperception. My understanding is that they’re simply meant for washing what my mom used to call “the pertinent parts”. They were essential to daily ablutions in a time when many people took a full bath only once a week or so.

  2. When I first saw a bidet I thought it was for washing my feet, much to the embrassement of a French lady, whose name I forget. Une blague, évidement. I am inclinéd to think the décliné of the bidet is related to the growth in use of showers. Before showers became commonplace the bidet was a good way to freshen up ones undercarriage between les bains.

  3. A bidet – a great invention by the French. If it’s falling out of favor you may be right about the space problem, but also, nowadays, people think nothing of having a shower everyday (thank you soap industries for promoting unnecessary waste of water but profitable to themselves). I use toilet paper, but I do make a final clean up in my bathroom bidet. It seems a good economic tool of personal hygiene.

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How do French Senate elections work?

Senate elections take place in France this week - here's how they work and what French senators actually do.

How do French Senate elections work?

An important election is coming up in France on Sunday, September 24th – although it probably won’t receive heavy media coverage. 

France’s Senate, the upper house of the country’s parliament, will renew half (170) of its 348 seats on Sunday.

However, the general public will not take part in the voting process.

What are ‘indirect’ elections?

Senators are elected ‘indirectly’ – which means that the general public does not choose the candidates or parties, as they would in a direct voting system. Instead, they elect the people who will do the voting.

In France, the voting for senators is up to the country’s grands électeurs (electoral college), which consists of approximately 162,000 elected officials – including elected regional councillors, département councillors, mayors, municipal councillors in larger communes and MPs in the National Assembly. 

Those selected for the electoral college are required to vote, and if they fail to do so they risk a fine of €100. How they vote is entirely up to them (although naturally they tend to vote along party lines). 

Municipal councillors and département councillors made up the majority of delegates (95 percent) of the grands électeurs as of 2023.

The size of the commune determines how many delegates represent it – so for a commune of less than 9,000 inhabitants with a town council of just seven to 11 members, there would be one delegate (member of the electoral college). In contrast, a commune with between 9,000 to 30,000 inhabitants would have all of its municipal councillors (of which there could be between 29 to 35 members) serving as delegates in the electoral college.

How does voting work?

There are two distinct voting methods for electing French senators, and which one is chosen depends on the number of seats to be filled in that département. In départements with one or two senators to be elected, the ‘first-past-the-post’ option is used, meaning voters in the electoral college get to choose a single candidate and the one with the most votes wins.

In départements with three or more senators to be elected, proportional representation lists are used.

In comparison, the lower house of parliament, the Assemblée Nationale, is elected with a direct voting system. The 577 deputés take up five year terms (subject to dissolution).

The different voting methods between the two houses are “to ensure that all the diverse components of French society are represented as fairly as possible.”

The theory being that if your area votes strongly in favour of the centre-left Parti Socialiste then the delegates elected are PS, and they in turn will pick PS senators – so that the overall views of the area are represented in the Senate. 

Senate terms 

Senators are elected to six year terms and are allowed to run for re-election as many times as they like. Many senators serve for a long time – for example, the current president of France’s Senate, Gérald Larcher, was first elected in 1986. 

In the 2020 election, of the 172 renewable seats up for vote, 94 were incumbents, and 78 were newly elected.

How often are they elected?

Senate elections occur every three years, with half of the seats voted on each time. This September, the 170 ‘serie 1’ seats will be voted on. 

You can see where the serie 1 (darker orange) elections are to be held in the map below.

Each département has a different number of senators representing it, which is proportional to the number of constituents who live there – so the city of Paris has 12 senators, the Nord départment 11, and the sparsely-populated département of Lozère just one.

Credit: Senat.Fr

Who are France’s senators?

The average age of senators at the beginning of their term, according to official figures, is 60 years and two months (the minimum age to run is 24).

In total 67 percent (232 senators) are men, with 315 of the 348 officials representing metropolitan France. The remaining 33 represent French overseas territories and departments, and French citizens living abroad. 

The make-up of the delegates tends to over-represent rural areas which means, on the whole, the Senate leans to the centre-right of France’s political spectrum. 

It is usual for the Senate to have a different political mix than the Assemblée Nationale and it has only had a leftist majority once since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 – for the three-year period between 2011-2014. 

The centre-right Les Républicains party currently holds 145 seats, Parti Socialiste holds 64 seats, and the ‘groupe union centriste’ (a centrist alliance) holds 57 seats.

According to Franceinfo, the party Les Républicains are slated as the favourites to win the most seats during the election on September 24th. Le Figaro wrote that Les Republicains will put up 65 seats during the election, and they hope to maintain at least 60 of those.

What does the Senate do?

The Senate’s job is to review Bills submitted by the government of the day, or by the Assembly. It also watches over the Government to make sure that any enacted laws are implemented properly. Senators can – and do – introduce bills (proposition de loi) of their own, but it is the Assembly that is the real driving force of government.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How does the French Senate work?

The reason that Senate elections don’t get much media coverage is that the power of the Senate is limited – in cases where the Assemblée nationale and the Senate vote differently, ultimately it is the Assemblée nationale which has the final say. 

The senate does have one particularly crucial role, however – the Senate president would take over as Acting President of the Republic in the event of vacancy, incapacity (or death), or resignation of the president. This has happened twice during the Fifth Republic – both times with the same person. Senate president Alain Poher briefly served as Acting president after the resignation mid-term of Charles de Gaulle and the death in office of Georges Pompidou.

The President of the Senate also has the right to designate three of the nine members of the Constitutional Council, serving for nine years.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is France’s Constitutional Council and how does it work?

In terms of compensation, a French senator earns (monthly) €7,493.30, which is made up of a ‘basic parliamentary allowance’ of €5,820.04, a ‘function’ allowance (for other expenses related to the job) of €1,498.66 and a residence allowance of €174.60.