Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Air conditioning in France

Even the cinemas in France aren’t air-conditioned! That’s what an American with us the other day watching “The Interpreter” would surely have said. In fact, they usually are air-conditioned; it just happened the air conditioning wasn’t working in that cinema that evening. Interestingly, this didn’t bother most people, who went in anyway.

Southeastern France has just been through ten days or so of this-is-as-hot-as-it-gets. Temperatures have been in the mid-90’s (33-36°C). Yesterday the mercury allegedly hit 38°C (100°F). People seem very stoic about it, especially when you consider that the last time it happened in June (2003), August was even worse. For the most part, though, people also know it won’t last, in contrast to many regions of the US, where it’s this hot from May until September. Nevertheless ....

Air conditioning is a complicated business in France. Office buildings constructed within the last 10 years are often, but not always, air conditioned; older ones rarely are. Schools, many government buildings, museums, some stores, and – as we all know since the summer of 2003 – many hospitals, are not. Apartment buildings, even newly constructed ones like ours, almost never are. An air-conditioned apartment building in France is the lap of luxury.

In the US, even if your building has no central air, putting in your own (window) air conditioner is easy. You open the window, position the air conditioner, being careful not to drop it onto the sidewalk below, pull down the window, tighten a couple of screws, and you’re in business. In France, however, ….

To begin with, there are no sash windows in France (they’re called fenêtres à guillotine here!), only – you guessed it – French windows, those lovely, floor-to-ceiling affairs that let you gaze out onto the countryside or cityscape and take in the fresh morning air. So you’d have to use a free-standing unit with a tube sticking out the (open) window. Then as much hot air comes in as is evacuated by the air conditioner. When the wind blows, the very air you’ve just sent out comes blowing back in.

If this is unsatisfactory and you want to install a central air-conditioning system in your city apartment in France, you first have to deal with your neighbors. Air conditioners are noisy, especially someone else’s, and noise is one of the chief complaints of the residents of French apartment buildings. Not that French people are noisier than, say, Americans. On the contrary, they’re quieter. While Americans are taught as they grow up to speak loudly and clearly, that it is impolite to mumble, French children are taught to speak softly, especially in public. So the slightest noise bothers them: children playing in the courtyard of an apartment building, someone speaking into a cell phone on the train, etc. Even if you are installing central air conditioning in an unattached house, you should make sure the compressor unit in the backyard isn’t too close to the neighbors’ property or you will get complaints about the noise. (Funny, in our apartment building, people seem to object to the hum of an air conditioner, but not to people partying on their balconies until midnight or so, with the accompanying bursts of laughter, but I’m digressing again.)

To complicate matters further, in France you are generally not allowed to install anything in your apartment that changes the outside appearance of the building, and air conditioners do. Things that change the outside appearance, such as shutters, must be approved by a majority of the apartment owners in such a way as to give the building a uniform appearance. In other words, everyone must select the same shutters. Now in a building like ours, where most apartments have balconies that face the courtyard, not the street, it is unclear to what extent this rule applies. There is general agreement that the prohibition against hanging laundry out to dry on your balcony (most people don’t have dryers) is a firm one. Satellite dishes are a gray area, because people cannot be deprived of their droit à l’image, some kind of fundamental right to receive TV broadcasts (I wonder if that was in the European constitution...). Anyway, it clearly doesn’t apply strictly, or you wouldn’t be able to plant geraniums (or only if all owners voted to plant geraniums, but then you wouldn’t be able to plant petunias). Then there’s a whole category of items people find simply unsightly or unesthetic. In other words, they won’t want to see your stuff on your balcony, whether it’s your gardening tools, your bicycles, your fishing rods, your extra refrigerator, etc., if it happens to face their balcony. In short, there’s no way round it: you will have to get the owners of all units to approve your air conditioner by a majority vote.

What is air conditioned in France is franco-cooled, not ameri-cooled. Mind you, this has advantages. For example, you don’t need a down jacket to go into the frozen-food aisle of the supermarket. In fact, when you first walk into an air-conditioned building in France, the difference compared with the outside is relatively subtle, and only after a while do you realize that it’s actually quite comfortable. So if you want your apartment ameri-cooled (soon I’ll get rid of the hyphen), you will have to order double the recommended power ratings.

Yesterday my singing group gave a concert in a rehabilitation center. The center has existed for 30 years or so, but a spanking new wing – you know what’s coming – has just been built in the last two years. We sang in the conference center in the new wing. When we first walked into the building, it seemed air conditioned, but I wasn’t sure. Then I noticed all the windows in the conference room were open. A half-hour later I noticed sweat trickling down my back as I sang. But no one seemed to find this unusual. No one (including me!) said “For crying out loud, even this brand new building has no air conditioning!” No, everyone accepted it as normal on a hot day. I was too embarrassed to ask if the building had air conditioning.

In addition to the cost of energy, this preference for francocooling (told you) is in part because French people simply don’t like air conditioning. They think it’s unhealthy and spreads germs and diseases, such as legionellosis (it does, but only in rare cases). They think that it creates too much of a difference between indoor and outdoor temperatures, so that when you go from one to the other, the body undergoes a sort of shock. We even have one friend who insists that the difference in temperature between an air-conditioned room and the outdoors should not exceed 6°C (11°F). Thus, if it is 35°C (95°F) outside, it should be no less than 29°C (84°F) indoors. Ever work in a 29°C (84°F) office? Does this 6° rule apply in the winter, too?

Since the summer of 2003, a plan canicule or “heat wave plan” has been devised. The plan bears a lot of resemblance to the color-coded terrorist alert levels in the US. A lot of money was spent creating it; no one knows what it actually means.

Hospitals are no more air conditioned than they were two years ago. I heard a TV news report two days ago about elderly people in a small rest home or extended care facility somewhere in the south. They had 11 fans for 22 rooms.

In August 2003, when there was a power failure in New York, it was treated virtually as a healthcare emergency. People with heart conditions and other vulnerabilities were without air conditioning and this was considered very dangerous. Yet it wasn’t even terribly hot, maybe 30°C (86°F). Back in that small French rest home, the social workers said the heat was insidious. The elderly didn’t notice the heat and had to be told to drink, they said.

I remember the last time I went to a baseball game with my father. The temperature was in the mid-eighties (28-30°C) at game time and it was humid. By the seventh inning, my father’s congestive heart failure was making it hard for him to breathe. He noticed it and so did I. He said needed to get into air conditioning, which he did as soon as we got to the car.

What happens to these people in France, even in “normal” summers? Do they all pop off without anyone taking notice? I’ve been here 16 years, but this is still a topic that confuses me. Another French paradox?

When you look at these differences between France and the US – and presumably between other European countries and the US – you begin to realize the enormous amounts of energy that must be consumed air conditioning all those buildings in America and to understand why the statistics show that the United States alone emits 25% of the planet’s greenhouse gases. France could do with more air conditioning, particularly in hospitals, but couldn’t America do with a few less 65°F frozen-food aisles and air-conditioned sports stadiums?



At 10:53 AM, Blogger Kevin said...

En france, l'air conditionné est avant tout cher. Alors que, en Provence par exemple ou j'ai habité, vivre la chaleur fait partie des habitudes. Et on perpétue des "techniques" comme le puit provencal (une cave fermée fraiche juste au dessous du rez de chaussé qui rafraichit la maison en été) ou de petites lucarnes, il n'y a que les touristes pour courir partout à 4 heures de l'après midi en plein été... Et puis, l'effet de serre nous préocupe peut être plus que les USA. En signant le protocole de Kyoto, nous ne nous sentons pas très impliqués puisque ne n'avons pas à faire baisser nos gaz à effet de serre mais à les stabiliser car nous fonctionnons surtout au Nucléaire.
Les habitudes ne sont pas les même tout simplement...Aux USA, l'écologie n'es tpas trop entrée dans les moeurs. C'est dommage car la pollution ne s'arrête pas aux frontrières...

Très intéressant comme blog, je reviendrai!

At 12:05 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Merci de ta visite !
C'est vrai, en France, on a su conserver des pratiques anciennes, alors qu'aux Etats-Unis on a construit des villes entières là ou la nature y est hostile. C'est un pays paradoxal, les Etats-Unis. Quand on y vit, on a l'impression que c'est le pays le plus en avance en matière d'écologie ou de protection de l'environnement, et que les Américains y sont très attachés. En effet, le pays a été en avance sur les carburants sans plomb, la protection des espèces menacés, la création de parcs nationaux, la propreté de ceux-ci, le tri des déchets, l'engagement précoce des ONG, et j'en passe ... Mais de l'extéreur, on voit d'autres pratiques, immodérées, et on voit la politique de l'actuel gouvernement. On finit par avoir l'impression que le pays tout entier n'a strictement rien à cirer de l'environnement planétaire. Dommage, comme tu dis.

At 3:24 AM, Anonymous glenn said...


Nice piece on a/c, or the lack of it, in France. I found even more intriguing your comments on the dislike of noise, the frequent complaints about noise, not wanting to see others' stuff on the balcony, and children being taught to speak softly in public (I recently saw a French mother with three remarkably well-behaved young girls, perhaps ages 5 to 10, in a bakery; she spoke to them quietly in French, almost in a hushed voice, and they made their selections just as quietly and efficiently) -- the issue, really, of privacy. You don't speak loudly because you're violating a right of privacy, your own and theirs -- they don't need, or want, to know your business, or see your laundry, for that matter. Could you comment on this in one of your future posts? I remember reading that the French have strict laws concerning privacy; a newspaper, unless it's hard news, can't run your photo without your permission. Some apartment buildings have numbers only alongside buzzers. I wonder if people tolerated Mitterand's "second" family in part because it just wasn't their business (perhaps, privately, they're just as moralistic as we are, although I doubt that). On the other hand, France might also have a thriving market in gossip magazines, just as we do here. And if they don't have dryers, where do they dry their clothes?


Glenn (Ameri-cooled, but not centrally)

At 12:16 AM, Blogger Steve said...

I think you're absolutely right about the privacy aspect. By accepting some restrictions on their daily behavior, e.g. by speaking in hushed tones, French people effectively expand their personal space. This is useful in cities, where personal space is already limited. Hence, you are unlikely to hear people talking loudly into a cell phone on a French train, for example. There are actually signs in the corridors reminding people to go to the space at the end of the car to use their cell phones.
We had some Israeli visitors stay in our apartment this week. They said that one morning around 10am as they waited for the elevator, a neighbor opened her door and looked out - I can only imagine accusingly - at them. They wondered why. Was it because they were speaking a foreign language? Because the language was Hebrew? Did the neighbor think it was Arabic, they wondered. No, I offered, it was probably just the volume.
Mitterand's second family was also considered a private matter, not an indication that he was fit or unfit to govern. I think French people are just as attached to their morals as anyone, they just don't like when people proclaim theirs from the rooftops. And yes, gossip magazines are also a thriving business here, though I suppose (note key word here) their stories are not reported the same way they are in the US. Finally, I haven't seen many buzzers with just numbers, but I have seen many high walls around properties to prevent gawking. People say that's because the wealthy are afraid they'll be denounced to the tax authorities. Now maybe there's a topic for a future post!
Thanks for your comment!


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