Those beautifully enamelled signs with blue backgrounds and stark white lettering – for most visitors to France, they are the initial encounter with the French written word. On subsequent visits, the names on those signs became reassuringly familiar: Charles de Gaulle, Victor Hugo, Jean Jaurès, Jules Ferry, Léon Blum.
But who are the characters behind all those names and who got to choose which names were used and which were not?
It wasn’t until the Middle Ages, and particularly the end of the 13th century, that street names were first used in France. They were often long, unwieldy descriptions, not the succinct appellations we know today. In Lyon back in 1342, for example, there was a road called ‘la rua qui fiert vers los Fraros Prejurs’ (the street which comes out near the preaching friars); in Montpellier in 1404, there was a passage near the red light district called ‘traversa que va a las filhas’ (shortcut to where the girls are). All of which goes to prove that back then, the most important places in town were the church and the brothel.
Over the next few centuries these lengthy descriptions were gradually shortened. So in Bordeaux, the Latin street ‘rua que de Templo ducit versus portam Digeu’ had by the late 1300s become simply ‘rue Porta Dugius’. In Avignon, the ‘carreria subtus Peysonneriam vulgariter dicta Arangerie’ became ‘rue des Oranges’. While these initial names were adopted by local popular consensus, come the 17th century, the State finally decided it was time to stick its oar in. For the first time, famous French characters from politics, royalty and the arts were commemorated.
A nod to the past
After the Revolution there suddenly sprang up hundreds of rues de la Liberte, places de l’égalite and routes de la Nation. And when Napoleon came to power, he ensured his legacy would forever be remembered on street corners, with rue de Rivoli and place d’Austerlitz (both great victories of his), plus rue Massena, his favourite general, among others. Prudery even played a role, with the phrase ‘cul de sac’ replaced by ‘impasse’ because ‘cul’ (the vulgar word for buttocks) was deemed too rude. Nowadays, street naming (or odonymy, as it’s known) is a complete mish-mash of the geographical (place Provençale), the historical (Avenue Charlemagne), the industrial (rue des forges), the religious (Boulevard Saint-Jean) and the orientational (rue de la gare).
The signs you see on every street are relatively new. In fact, it wasn’t until the 18th century that they were actually mounted on street corners. Before then, people normally found their way around using hotel and shop signs. In his painstakingly researched book, Les Noms de Rues Disent la Ville, Jean-Claude Bouvier describes how, in 1728, the Paris authorities decreed that anyone living at the end of a street had to install stone tablets big enough to accommodate the street name in letters two and a half inches high. Bouvier says some of the first street signs ever to exist were rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques, rue de Vieilles Tuileries, rue des Postes and cul de sac du Boeuf.
In 1823, these tablets were replaced by iron signs with white letters on a black background, and then white letters on a blue background in 1844. Three years later, enamelled porcelain was introduced.
Today, most signs are made of enamelled metal, but occasionally you’ll find other materials, such as lava stone (in Clermont-Ferrand), limestone (Dijon) or even vinyl-coated aluminium. White letters on a blue background is standard, although in some places you can spot black on white, or white on yellow or red.
No doubt because we view them so frequently, street signs can elicit some fairly passionate responses. Actress Juliette Binoche, for example, is a huge fan of Paris’s odonyms. “Paris has a very particular beauty because of all those megalomaniac kings and emperors and their need to have their names on places,” she says. “When I see the Arc de Triomphe, even though it’s very Parisian, I feel ashamed because I hate what Napoleon did. And I’m amazed there’s no monument for the Algerians. Why does it all need to be about conquests? What about honouring the people we hurt?”
As mini historical monuments, the political power of street signs is obvious. Just take place General de Gaulle in Marseille as an example. In 1778 it was baptised place de la Paille. Over the next 200 years its name was changed no less than nine times, depending on the political appetite of the day: place Necker in 1789, place de la Liberte in 1793, place Impériale at the start of the First Empire, place Royale in 1814, place de la Republique in 1848, again place Impériale under the Second Empire, place de la Revolution in 1870, place de la Bourse the year after, and finally place General de Gaulle from 1970 onwards. Imagine the stationery bill if you’d been unlucky enough to have a family business in that particular part of town!
Controversy and change
Bouvier tells how certain street names have caused serious tension among the locals. A small village in the Somme called Dernancourt has for years wrestled over whether to rename its rue Maréchal Pétain. Since Pétain was a World War I hero before he became a Nazi collaborationist, the situation was resolved in 2005 by adding ‘Vainqueur de Verdun’ (Verdun conqueror) to the sign.
Perhaps the most controversial street name in recent years is that honouring French eugenics scientist and Nobel prize-winner Alexis Carrel. It wasn’t until the 1990s, half a century after his death, that historians first suggested Carrel’s writings had led to the execution of thousands of mentally ill people during World War II. Over 20 French towns, including Paris, duly replaced his name on their street signs with someone altogether more politically correct.
This eradication from history has happened all over France. After the Revolution, thousands of royal and religious street names were obliterated in favour of revolutionary heroes. Even as recently as 1997, when the Front National won power in a Provence town, the authorities replaced foreign names such as Nelson Mandela, Olof Palme and Salvador Allende with names more palatable to xenophobes. “When it comes to strictly political street names,” Bouvier writes, “the names chosen by the municipal authorities of course reflect the political colour of the politicians and the local support they enjoy.”
But by getting bogged down in the politics of street names, you risk missing the simple beauty of the signs on which they are etched. Who, as a tourist in France, hasn’t admired the blue plaques laid against the medieval brickwork? One Brit, Jacqueline Merritt, has even succeeded in earning a living from it. She sells old signs at fairs all over the UK. At her home in Hertfordshire and her holiday house in Normandy, she stores up to 100 signs at any one time, selling around 60 or 70 a year. She currently stocks everything from ‘rue de l’hôpital’ and ‘rue nationale’ to ‘Avenue du General Leclerc’ and ‘Impasse du Pont-Canon’. Merritt has spent years building up contacts in municipal councils all over France. Whenever old signs are replaced with new ones, she grabs what she can from the employees into whose hands they fall. Flogging them at prices ranging from £60 all the way up to £150, surely sometimes she’s tempted to pinch the odd sign straight off a street corner? “I would if I was taller, but I’m far too short,” she jokes. Merritt says the vast majority of her signs are sold to the English, not the French.“A lot of my customers hang the signs up in their kitchens. The English seem to love wars and they prefer immediately recognisable names.”
But what names are most recognisable? In his book, Bouvier says that orientational odonyms designed to help strangers find their way round a town are the most common: for example, names incorporating l’école, la Mairie, la Gare, le Château, l’église, la Chapelle and le Marché. But equally common are what he calls “heroes of the Republic”. According to La Poste, the 20 most popular characters to adorn street signs are, in order of decreasing popularity, de Gaulle, Pasteur, Hugo, Jaurès, Gambetta, Jules Ferry, Lamartine, Clemenceau, Zola, Voltaire, Briand, Carnot, Anatole France, Rousseau, Roger Salengro, Jean Monnet, Léon Blum, Mendes-France, François Mitterand and Thiers. Every one of these heroes is both male and dead. According to Bouvier, only around one per cent of French streets are named after women. Jeanne d’Arc, the resistance fighter Danielle Casanova, the singer Edith Piaf and the writer Simone de Beauvoir, plus a whole host of female saints, are among a handful.
As a general rule, very rarely have signs been dedicated to famous people while they were still living. The exceptions include Victor Hugo, Charles de Gaulle, Sadi Carnot and François Mitterand.
•With thanks to Jean-Claude Bouvier, author of the fascinating Les Noms de Rues Disent la Ville, which is published by Christine Bonneton.
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