France's iconic 'concierge' – a dying breed?

France's iconic 'concierge' – a dying breed?

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People have been known to lie on the floors of their apartments to hide from them, sneak past them, flee from them, beg them for help, discretion, leeway and complicity.

In Ernest Hemingway's novel "The Sun Also Rises", his anti-heroine Brett (played by Ava Gradner in the 1957 film) brags about how she has won over that quintessentially Parisian figure, as French as cheese -- the cranky concierge.

"I ought to have. Gave her 200 francs," says Brett, when a friend marvelled that Brett had "hell's own drag with the concierge now."

People have been known to lie on the floors of their apartments to hide from them, sneak past them, flee from them, beg them for help, discretion, leeway and complicity.

But in the ever evolving march of cost-cutting, could these guardians of the portal, symbols of a discreet but watchful society, keepers of the gates, knowers of all business, good and bad, be now finally on the road to extinction?

"More and more, concierges -- who are normally housed in the building -- are being replaced by daytime guardians, or by outside cleaning companies. But the service is not the same," mourns Marie-Louise Carbonnier, editor of the specialist publication "L'Echo des Concierges".

In the last 10 years, 10,000 concierge posts have been done away with in the Paris region, said Pierre Lellouche, a ruling party politician who has just drafted legislation that will, he hopes, "stop the haemorrhage".

L'Echo des Concierges has been responsible for a lobbying campaign to increase awareness among politicians that is headed up by Jean-Michel Hennequin, who says concierges are an important human link between residents
and the outside world.

They are quite the opposite of the ever more present electronic code keypad now outside buildings, anonymously controlling the entry and exit of visitors, says Hannequin, who is a concierge.

The Paris-based union of apartment managers, the Federation des Syndicats Cooperatifs de Copropriete, or FSCC, is of the same opinion. "Very often the concierges are of help to those who are sick or old, particularly in buildings
that don't have lifts.

"They bring the bread, the medicines," said Michel Thiercelin, FSCC president.

Lellouche, who organised a meeting at the beginning of January with more than 100 concierges, says the main motivation for the reduction in concierge housing -- small rooms or flats strategically placed by the ground-floor lobby
of buildings which are known as lodges -- and therefore jobs, is the high cost of employment for small and medium sized property owners.

In his proposed law, he suggests owners should be able to deduct the some of the cost associated with employing a concierge from their taxes. He is also suggesting a simplified payment system that will make concierge payments and employers tax credits easier to administer.

How successful he will be remains to be seen, but what is sure is that the disappearing concierge marks the passing of a literary and social era.

While English-speaking writers such as Hemingway in the 1920s and Nancy Mitford in the 1950s larded their stories with concierge tales, the French had started two centuries before, when estimated numbers of concierges were one per 90 inhabitants in certain parts of Paris.

In his book, "Les Mysteres de Paris" (1870), writer Eugene Sue, added the word "pipelette" -- another name for concierge -- to French pejoratives with his portrait of a gossipy concierge couple, Monsieur and Madame Pipelet.

Balzac had the concierge play cupid in his book "Cousin Pons" (1847), and in "Nana", Emile Zola (1880) has the concierge at all manner of tasks, from sweeping to fetching absinthe, and finally announcing the death from smallpox
of the novel's namesake to one of her lovers.

Given the often exaggerated literary descriptions of the typical concierge however, L'Echo is fighting another battle, in tandem with the employment issue, having launched a defence against some of the bad, if fond, press the
profession has garnered.

"The concierge in socks and slippers in front of the door, that's finished," said Carbonnier.

 

AFP 


Photo credit: Witt Instanbul Suites (service bell).

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