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There's No Escaping the Abnormal Norms of Paris

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Mail boxes in France.
Mail boxes in France. Credit: Hemis.fr RM / Getty Images


At first glance, a meeting of the tenant association here could resemble one in Israel, if in Israel such meetings opened with the question, “White, red or rosé? I think we also have pastis.” For the past 20 years, the retired couple who are hosting the meeting in their small apartment have been high-handedly managing the residents of the building, with its courtyard and the mailboxes – which we’ll get to in a moment. But first, there’s the matter of the door to our entrance, one of four. “We received a letter from the Paris Municipality, which says that we must repaint our door, because of its dents and scratches, which adversely affect the street’s aesthetics,” says Monsieur Sharme, whose name hints futilely at some sort of personal appeal. “The color of the door, as you know, is bold turquoise, known as ‘London blue,’ which is a difficult shade to find today. It will cost 200 euros. Who’s in favor?”


We live at the intersection where the French Revolution erupted, Faubourg Saint-Antoine corner of Ledru-Rolin. But something historic happened at every street corner in Paris, so that doesn’t seem to me sufficient reason to tell people when to paint their door. But, as renters, we’re not the ones who are paying, so I vote in favor, along with everyone else. “Everyone” is the 13 people present, because as with meetings of every tenant association in the world, only a minority of the tenants show up.

“There are many new neighbors who are not yet demonstrating a commitment to appropriate management in the building,” the wife and partner-in-management of M. Sharme says in a neutral tone of voice. Basically it’s a businesslike statement, like informing the Gestapo about Jewish neighbors in the attic. This quickly turns out to be a transitional sentence connected to the next subject: the mailboxes.

The intersection where the French Revolution erupted, Faubourg Saint-Antoine corner of Ledru-Rolin, Paris.Credit: besopha

“Indeed, we have many new neighbors,” M. Sharme nods in assent, “and that is very apparent, because many of the mailboxes lack engraved names, as required by regulatory norms. There are names on stickers, or engraved in a non-regulatory way, or even on yellow Post-it notes.” An oppressive silence falls. The psychologist from the third floor comes to the rescue: “I suggest that M. Sharme place a ‘Welcome to the building’ letter in the mailboxes with a reminder about the engraving,” she says. Who’s in favor? All of us.


In 1881, a law was enacted secularizing the cemeteries in Paris, which, among other things, restricted the wording of texts that could be inscribed on gravestones in Père Lachaise. “Ascended to heaven,” “God summoned him” and other “May his soul be bound in the bond of life”-style memorial messages were banned. That year, the director of that cemetery, the city's largest, rejected a family’s request to inscribe “Pray for the ascent of his soul,” on the grounds that there is nothing after death, writing that, “Not even thousands of prayers will abet the ascent of a nonexistent soul, so such a headstone would be tantamount to false advertising.”


M. Sharme’s letter arrives the very next day. It does in fact contain the sentence, “Welcome to the building,” but its politeness ends there. I am requested to betake myself posthaste to the engraver at the corner of the street, “who is well acquainted with the building’s norms,” and order a proper name-plate.

Dov Alfon and Lital Levin's mailbox in Paris.

But things got complicated.

“I can’t make you a ‘Dov Alfon’ sign, it has to be without first names,” the engraver says, his face expressionless, giving the order form back to me. “Alfon,” yes. “Alfon-Levin” is an option. “Dov Alfon and Lital Levin” – over his dead body (and that’s not stylistic hyperbole – that’s what he said).

The regulatory norms of the postal service, it emerges, stipulate that only the surname shall appear on mailboxes. In my great navete, I argued that, as the sign would appear on my mailbox, I was the one who would have to appear before the god of regulatory norms and explain my considerations. All I want is to pay for a plate conceived by me. But the engraver won’t hear of his vocation being reduced to a client’s level of execution. “Monsieur must understand: What if I were a surgeon, for example: Would Monsieur try to order an operation according to his perspective? There are norms. I cannot make a sign that departs from the norms.”


There are 435,000 regulatory norms in France, according to the latest report from the state comptroller. Some of them are non-implementable, others are mutually contradictory. The cost to the French economy of maintaining them is estimated to reach tens of billions of euros annually. Almost every evening, the last report on the newscast – the one after the story about the birth of a baby rhino in the Paris zoo – is a humorous look at one norm or another. This week there was a story about a farmer who was ordered to build a 300-cubic-meter pool, for use as a reserve for use in dousing fires, whereas the norms of the Interior Ministry stipulate that firefighters in farming regions are not allowed to use private sources of water, out of fear of electrocution.


I installed the name-plate on our mailbox, courtesy of a Chinese engraver in the Belleville neighborhood who didn’t ask too many questions. An urgent summons from M. Sharme followed, to an emergency meeting of the committee. Are all of the neighbors being convened to condemn our engraving? Does “engraving” have the same etymology as “grave”? There’s no time to reflect on that, because M. Sharme looks very uptight. “I informed the Paris Municipality that the committee voted to repaint the door, in the wake of their comment,” he tells us. “But now we have received a letter in which we are told they will not approve this particular shade of blue. They claim that the color was approved according to the regulatory norms of the 1930s, when England was in fashion and there were many doors in a ‘London style,’ but that the norms changed back in the 1970s.”

Passed around among those present is the letter in which the head of the 12th arrondissement, Catherine Baratti-Elbaz, does indeed reject the building’s announcement and suggests that we choose between burgundy and walnut brown. “What unbelievable effrontery to intervene in our choice of color,” Mme. Sharme asserts. But the neighbors tend to accept their fate. “What if the mayor were a surgeon,” I begin to say – and there’s no need to finish, because everyone nods in assent. “There are norms,” the psychologist from the third floor says. “We cannot depart from the norms.”

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