Discovering French Street Signs

Classic street sign

Classic French street sign

We take street signs for granted. They’re useful when we need to find an address. Apart from that, we don’t give them much thought. This may appear to be an abstruse subject but delve into the history a bit and they’ll tell you something about a place.

I went around our village on the only nice afternoon this week (Thursday) and snapped a few street signs that I had never really noticed before. When I parked in the market square for 30 seconds, hopped out and took shots of the signs and then drove off, people sitting at the café must have thought I was barmy.

Relatively recent invention

The standard French street sign is a rather nice blue background with a white border and plain white lettering: easy to see against the local stone. Variations exist, though, as you’ll see below. This style was introduced in 1844 – at least in Paris. I haven’t been able to verify the date for other places.

It appears that the naming of streets began only in the medieval period. Names were lengthy geographical descriptions such as ‘the street that goes down to the river’ or ‘the lane that leads to the tanneries’. And street signs as we know them today didn’t exist. The signs mounted on street corners appeared only in the 18th century. So when you see a town trying to distinguish itself by putting up signs with faux-medieval lettering and coats of arms, you can be sure they didn’t look like that in the 13th century.

Not like this in medieval times. BTW it's an 'L' not a 'P'.

Not like this in medieval times. BTW it’s an ‘L’ not a ‘P’.

Commemorating history and people

As time went on the names got shorter and often commemorated historical events. Following the French Revolution, names including république were popular. In fact, it’s probably one of the most common names for French streets and squares today.

Autocratic leaders like Napoleon then got in on the act and saw street signs as a means of self-advertisement. So, for example, you get Place d’Austerlitz and Place d’Iéna in Paris, named after his famous victories. The historical theme continued and today you see many streets named ‘rue/avenue du 8 mai 1945’, the date when World War II ended in Europe (see the street sign from our village at the top of this post).

Famous historical figures are also popular subjects for street names. Street names throughout France often celebrate politicians Léon Gambetta (Cahors boy who became a republican politician), Jean Jaurès (peacemaker assassinated just before World War I), Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand and literary figures Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.

They don’t always stay the same, either, depending on who is in fashion. Sometimes older dignitaries have to give way to newer ones: the former Place Gambetta in Cahors was renamed Place François Mitterrand a while ago. And streets named after Maréchal Pétain, the victor of Verdun in World War I, were re-baptised after he headed the Vichy government during World War II. The last to ditch his name was the village of Belmain (Meuse) in April 2013.

I learned recently that when the street name concerns a person it does not normally use ‘de’ (of) after ‘rue’. So it’s ‘rue Jean Jaurès’ not ‘rue de Jean Jaurès’. If it’s an inanimate object or historical event then it becomes, for example, ‘rue de la Gare’ (Station Road).

Recipe for uncertainty

Which one is it, then?

Which one is it, then?

Sometimes a certain schizophrenia creeps in and you see two different names for the same street or square. The market place in our village is both ‘place de la halle’ and ‘place de la Mairie’. Perhaps they couldn’t decide which of these hallowed buildings should take precedence.

Market hall

Market hall

Local Mairie

Local Mairie

Another street in the village is called ‘avenue Général Delestraint’ (World War II resistance leader and head of the Secret Army). Since this doesn’t trip off the tongue, people just call it ‘la route de Livron’, the next village.

Doesn't trip off the tongue

Doesn’t trip off the tongue

Other street names denote saints, geographical landmarks, buildings, industrial activities or places. A street in our village, for example, is called ‘rue de l’abreuvoir’, since it presumably had an animals’ drinking trough or watering place at one time. Other names in the area denote the former existence of tanneries and taweries (mégisseries), where animal hides were treated. So you get a good notion of the former trades in a town from the street names.

Next time you visit a French town, have a look at the street names. They are often witnesses to its history, past or present political leanings and its inhabitants’ preoccupations.

If you know of any odd or unusual street names, please share them.

You might also like:

Five Curiosities in Caylus
The Secret of le Château de la Reine Margot
Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val : Haunting and Historic Town

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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10 Responses to Discovering French Street Signs

  1. Osyth says:

    What a lovely insight into French sign-posting – here we have scritzophenia aplenty but what I love is the colour of the sign against the stone … I’m not sure if aesthetics were at the forefront of the process but it works for me. And for my English friends too who regularly say how lovely compared to theres.

    • nessafrance says:

      I enjoyed finding out more about the subject. I, too, like the colour of the signs against the local stone. I hope they don’t eventually replace them all with something more utilitarian.

  2. Interesting to read more info on street signs, thanks. If you remember I did a post some time back, vis-a-vis honouring the heroes by naming streets after them. Here’s the link for anyone who might be interestred: http://blogs.angloinfo.com/pot-pourri/2012/04/29/streets-ahead/

  3. susancarey says:

    In Amsterdam, before street/canal names and numbers they used wall plaques to identify buildings. They were often highly decorative and connected to the profession of the house’s owner. I blogged about it here: http://amsterdamoriole.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/gevelstenen-plaques-in-amsterdam/
    Later, street and canal names developed. We do get odd situations though; the Lindengracht, which means ‘lime tree canal’ is now just a commercial street; the trees have all been chopped down and the canal filled in! Confusing…

    • nessafrance says:

      It must complicate things having canals as well as streets. Although I’ve visited Venice several times, I can’t remember how they do it there. And some of the features that give their names to streets no longer exist but the name persists – like your lime tree canal.

  4. MELewis says:

    I always find it funny that the French name their streets after historical figures and dates. It seems that they’re so focused on the past… Thanks for an interesting post!

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, the French are very attached to their past, although parts of it have been considerably less than happy. Street signs are so much a part of daily life that I didn’t know, until I started researching, what an interesting subject it can be. I had no idea, for example, that until the last one went last year Pétain was still commemorated in that way – but that was for his WWI exploits.

  5. amelie88 says:

    Loved this post. I didn’t realize the blue signs with white lettering were common outside of Paris, I will have to pay attention next time I am in France outside of Paris. American street signs are pretty ho-hum–either dark green or blue with white lettering–we are rather practical and minimalist with our signage.

    The city center of Madrid had lovely tiled street signs with mini paintings representing the name of the street. I wrote a post about it awhile ago and it seems a lot of people who have seen those signs are huge fans because it brightens up what would otherwise be just boring signage.

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks. As I recall, UK street signs are also practical but undistinguished. I find the blue French signs rather elegant. However, there’s now a move, as I said in the post, for towns to put up more elaborate ones with their coat of arms etc, so there’s more variation than there was. Around here, you sometimes see two signs – one in French and the other in Occitan, since the latter has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years.

      Interesting to hear about Madrid. I’ve never been there, to my shame, but I’ll be sure to look out for those street signs when I do.

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