French fire safety

It is no secret that the French culture embraces regulations. Illusory or not, they love the feeling of controlling the world around them with policies, procedures, and assignment of responsibility. These regulations slow down all activities in France and, in many ways, hurt France’s standing in the world. Of course tradeoffs exist, so we should be careful not to conclude that they are a bad thing in all cases.

What astounds me is that, even with all of this government intervention, common-sense safety regulations really don’t exist. In some cases, this seems like a good thing. It is liberating to not be protected from myself at every turn. But here they don’t even have basic safety features in flats and workplaces.

Take my workplace, for example, where there is a single usable fire exit (UPDATE: See below). The building is not particularly small. It is quite modern, and fire exits do exist all over the place, but they are all locked or barricaded in various ways. The only way out is the front door, and many parts of the building will likely be quite cut off from this exit in case of a fire. I don’t know what French law actually says about this situation, but such an American lab would be inspected and shut down promptly. It is true that some codes in the US are ridiculous, but I’d go so far as to say that the effective lack of fire codes here is stupid. One would think that a responsible employer would solve the problem, but I guess this lack of action illustrates the need for workplace safety regulations and enforcement.

The situation at home and around town is more complex. There are a lot of old buildings in France, including much of the housing. For this reason, it is undoubtedly difficult to implement safety rules across the board. That said, there are some things that are just silly. Last month, though we already had one, a law went into effect that finally mandated smoke detectors in rental housing. This is shocking to me, given that this has been regulated in pretty much every American town for decades. I don’t know the laws in the rest of Europe, but there was also no smoke detector in my flat in Germany. The silliness also extends to the construction domain, with almost every door in France swinging inward. Even worse, many doors require a key to exit. In our flat, for example, we must manually unlock the door to the actual flat and then also the one downstairs to exit to the street. If we don’t have our key on us, we’ll be trapped. I’m not just arguing for the value of regulations. I also believe that responsible landlords and architects should solve these things voluntarily, and it astounds me that they largely haven’t.

Imagine living in a place where right turns on red are universally outlawed but the fire exits are chained shut. It’s mind boggling.

UPDATE: I’ve been told (for unrelated reasons) that there is a second exit that does work in our lab. As far as I know, there is still no alternate exit from the large room with the VR equipment, which has 3 out of 4 exits locked, but is the most likely place for a fire.

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