John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

Our concierge and the fightback by French tradition poisonous undercurrents
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Almost every apartment building in Paris used to have a permanently bad-tempered woman guarding the front door. They were once as much a part of the townscape as yellow cigarettes, urinoirs and elegant green buses.

In the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of concierges - it is now more correct to say gardienne d'immeuble - were replaced by electronic security devices and cleaning contractors. Apartment owners decided that this was cheaper than paying wages, however small. They could also make money by renting or selling the concierge's tiny flat or loge. Asgardiennes became rarer, they became prized. Flats in the buildings where they survived sell for much higher prices. The drive to exterminate them has slowed down.

About 20,000 gardiennes (and occasional male gardiens) remain, compared to 70,000 in the 1950s. The profession seems to be a Portuguese monopoly but there are bizarre interlopers. The gardienne of the building where we live is a Bosnian-Serb Jehovah's Witness.

We bought a small flat last year as an investment and as a possible bolt-hole for our retirement. We recently attended the annual meeting at which the co-proprietaires decide how to manage the commonly owned parts of the building. Top of the agenda was the firing of the concierge. Second was whether to replace her with an intercom and a letterbox.

I have covered EU summits, G8 summits, Anglo-French summits and US-Soviet summits. None seethed with poisonous undercurrents as much as a meeting of Parisian co-proprietaires.

Seven people were present. An electronic calculating machine was needed to judge whether we had a quorum. By law, big spending decisions by co-owners - such as whether to buy a new letterbox - must be made by people who own at least two-thirds of the floor space.

The calculator was required to work out how many square meters were at the meeting. (The EU's proposed "double majority" formula for taking decisions in the Council of Minister seems elementary by comparison.) Many interesting points emerged. Under the terms of a new law passed in 2003, 97 per cent of all the lifts in France will be illegal from next year.

France being France, a loophole allows lift modernisation to be delayed, under certain circumstances, until 2013. We gratefully voted to take advantage of it. Since this was a decision NOT to spend each other's money, no elaborate quorum was needed.

Then there was the future of the concierge. She should have retired a year ago. She was given an extra 12 months. Now, she is asking to stay on longer. She does not want to move out of her loge to go home to Portugal. Our fellow flat owners fear - probably rightly - that she intends to squat there indefinitely, knowing that it is almost impossible under French law to evict an elderly tenant.

Heated argument broke out about how to handle the situation. Almost all the other co-owners did not want a new gardienne.

We agreed with them that the old concierge should be asked to retire. We did not agree with them that the post should be scrapped. The position would not actually be abolished, one of the others pointed out sweetly. It would simply be left vacant. Another person suggested that we, as non-occupiers, had no right to interfere.

Any large strategic decision, such as abolishing the concierge, must, by law, be taken by all the co-owners unanimously. We not only have a right to object. We have a veto.

One excitable man started scribbling secret messages to us. "You are right," he wrote. Or: "It adds value to your flat." He did not want to quarrel openly with his neighbours. He wanted us to fight his battle for him. Eventually, he admitted publicly that he, too, had "reservations" about abolishing the gardienne.

In the best tradition of European summits, it was finally conceded that no big decisions could be taken. We were 100 square metres short of a quorum. The meeting had lasted two and a half hours. Battle will be rejoined in February.