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.

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France’s national fast food: What exactly are ‘French tacos’?

If you're from the north American continent, you are probably familiar with the (traditionally Mexican) taco - but in France you will meet 'French tacos', a different beast entirely.

France's national fast food: What exactly are 'French tacos'?

If you walk the streets of any French city or large town, you will likely stumble upon a fast-food restaurant called O’Tacos. But if you are expecting to be able to order a delicious Mexican al pastor taco with salsa verde, you will find yourself sorely disappointed.

As staff writer for the New Yorker, Lauren Collins wrote in 2021, “French tacos are tacos like chicken fingers are fingers”. In fact, one Mexican chef in Paris told Collins that she once had a customer “throw his order in the trash, saying it wasn’t a taco”.

French tacos (always spelled in the plural sense) are a popular and distinct fast food in France, often decried by health experts as highly caloric – an average French tacos clocks in at about 1,348 calories, and an XXL can run up to 2,300, above the recommended daily total caloric intake for an adult woman.

What many imagine when thinking of a taco is the traditional Mexican food, eaten by hand, which consists of a small corn or wheat tortilla filled with meat, beans and/or vegetables, topped with condiments like salsa or guacamole.

In contrast, the French taco is a flour tortilla filled with meat, sauce, and French fries, folded together and grilled to build a panini-burrito-kebab mélange. You can add plenty of other ingredients inside too – from cheese to turkey bacon. Most French tacos are halal-certified to accommodate Muslim customers – so do not contain pork.

The biggest chain is the strangely named O’Tacos – France is home to 300 O’Tacos restaurants – an amount that has doubled in the last five years, as French tacos continue to pick up popularity among the youth.

And you are not limited to O’Tacos for your French taco needs – plenty of smaller fast-food shops and chains across the country, particularly those selling kebabs and those that remain open late into the night – offer French tacos too.

The origins of French tacos

There are various claims regarding the origins of French tacos – or whether there is a single inventor of the fast food at all – but many point to the diverse suburbs of France’s gastronomy capital, Lyon. 

In a documentary by Bastien Gens, titled ‘Tacos Origins’, claimed that French fast food was created toward the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s in Lyon suburbs of Villeurbanne and Vaulx-en-Velin. 

According to Collins, the “earliest innovators of the French tacos were probably snack proprietors of North African descent in the Lyonnais suburbs.

However, some claim that the concept originated in Grenoble first, which is also the site of the first O’Tacos restaurant, opened in 2007 by a former construction worker, Patrick Pelonero, who told Collins he had never visited Mexico but simply enjoyed eating French tacos on his lunch breaks.

Tacos’ popularity 

One thing is certain – French tacos, typically priced around €5.50 are distinctly French.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Loïc Bienassis, a member of the European Institute of Food History and Cultures, said that: “For decades, France has been an inherently urban, industrial, and culturally diverse country. The French taco is a mutant product of this country. It is its own national junk food.”

In the past few years, French tacos’ popularity has spread beyond the l’Hexagone – to Morocco, Belgium and even the United States.

The sandwich has become so trendy in France that some even refer to traditional Mexican tacos as a “taco mexicain” to differentiate between the two.

In 2021, over 80 million French tacos were consumed in France, making it more popular than the hamburger and the kebab.

In the same year, French youth also took to social media, joining in an O’Tacos challenge #Gigatacos. The goal was to consume a giant French tacos, weighing in at 2kg. Anyone who succeeded would be automatically refunded. Videos of the challenge coursed through French social media networks, with several million views.

While France is known for its classic cuisine, which relies heavily on fresh ingredients, the country also has a history of loving fast food, so it may come as little surprise that it would invent its own highly caloric dish.

As of 2019, France was home to the second biggest market for McDonald’s per head of population after the United States. 

READ MORE: Krispy Kreme, Popeyes, Five Guys: the American fast-food chains taking on France