Thirty years ago on the ground floor of almost every apartment block in France, there lived a middle-aged lady, often of Portuguese origin, who kept the communal areas clean, looked after the mail, showed prospective tenants around flats available for rent, fed your cat while you were on holiday and probably gossiped a fair bit too.
But over the years many apartment-dwellers have chosen not to replace a retiring concierge, but instead to opt for a code system or videophone to regulate entry to their block - its cheaper and doesn’t gossip.
Housing minister Benoist Apparu is keen to change that and create jobs at the same time, and that’s why he is backing the creation of a new school which offers a 400-hour training course to applicants, with a guarantee of a job at the end.
Trainees at the Egérie school are paid by the unemployment office while they undergo their training, at 70 per cent of the minimum wage.
Loic Deschamps was attracted by the package but also by the idea of performing a useful social function. “It’s a job which is sometimes poorly-regarded, but concierges are totally in the service of others, and often play a role as the mediator between the owners of the apartment block and the tenants”.
They’re not called concierges anymore (the word itself has now come to denote a gossip!) so the more politically-correct “gardien” is preferred, and many, like Loïc, are male.
He’ll learn cleaning routines, first aid techniques, fire prevention rules and even how to use a defibrillator, skills which reflect a renewed emphasis on the social role of a concierge.
In the heatwave in the summer of 2003 when many old people died alone in their apartments, commentators noted that checking on older residents had long been an unofficial part of the role of concierge, but with fewer concierges there were many deaths.
Benoist Apparu regrets that there are now only 46,450 gardiens in France, a 23 per cent drop over the last ten years, despite a rise in the number of apartments.
And with 25 per cent due to retire between now and 2013, he has launched a publicity campaign to try to attract newcomers to a job whose image needs a radical boost.