In France, 60% of the streets are named after men.
Tree-lined boulevards, cobbled alleyways, skinny buildings with wrought-iron balconies: the streets of France are recognizable the world over. To promenade in a French city is to take a walk through history, the blue plaques on street corners delivering the names of former generals, politicians, scientists, and revolutionaries. But it’s also almost exclusively through the white male gaze.
There are more Rues Victor Hugo and Places Charles de Gaulle than you can shake a (French) stick at, but whilst over 60% of the country’s road names celebrate famous French men, only 6% nationwide honor the country’s women. In Paris, the figure is even more paltry at 2%. One place where the gender imbalance is being addressed, albeit slowly, is in Lyon, France’s third-largest city in the east of the country.
“We started to address the gender imbalance properly in 2014,” says Florence Delaunay, Deputy Mayor and Equality Minister. “Initially our target was to operate a 50/50 gender split when naming new streets in Lyon. We quickly realized that this wasn’t enough, and in 2020 (when Grégory Doucet, Green Party, was elected as mayor) we increased the ratio. Now 90% of new roads here are named after women.”
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France’s street names are usually decided upon by the town council (the mayor and councilors). Historically, town councils and indeed French politics as a whole have been an overwhelmingly white, male domain. It’s disappointing, but thoroughly unsurprising, that these white male politicians have tended to choose other white men as the inspiration for street names.
Lyon is a city with a roller-coaster history. Over 4,000 years old, it was originally a small Gallic settlement at the confluence of the Rivers Rhône and Saône, which became Lugdunum in 43 BC under Roman senator Lucius Munatius Plancus. It rapidly became one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire, and didn’t come under French control until the 14th-century.
In the 1500s, Lyon was Europe’s largest producer of silk, but fell into economic decline during la révolte des Canuts (silk workers uprisings) in the first half of the 1800s. During the 20th-century, industry alternately boomed and waned and factories opened and closed, but in recent years, the Metropolis of Lyon has become a desirable place to live once more, and now counts almost 1.5 million inhabitants. The city is expanding rapidly, and with expansion comes brand-new streets, and an opportunity to honor the forgotten women of French history.
“We don’t often change existing street names,” says Delaunay. “It’s much more complicated than simply switching a plaque, and we’d have to get the buy-in of residences in order to do so.”
For residents, changing the name of their street would be an administrative nightmare, requiring them to update documentation and identification, not to mention plenty of potential problems with post going astray. This means that even when a street is named after someone controversial, the council generally keeps the original name.
Rue Bugeaud, in Lyon’s 6th arrondissement, is named after Thomas Robert Bugeaud, one of the main officers responsible for colonizing Algeria in 1836 and appointed Governor-General of Algeria in 1840. Place Maréchal Lyautey, in homage to Hubert Lyautey, former French Minister of War and the first French Resident-General of Morocco (1912–1925), is just a couple of streets away. As colonialists responsible for the suppression and deaths of numerous Algerians and Moroccans, respectively, had Lyon’s city council considered changing the street names?
“We don’t want to erase the unsightly parts of history,” explains Delaunay. “Instead of renaming the streets, we add information that explains exactly what the person in question did. We’ve also been constructing statues of notable people that we do feel are worthy of recognition on the same streets, to show the contrast.”
Statues are another controversial topic in France. While the men represented in statues are generally real people (Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis XIV, or Denis Diderot, for example), statues of women are often whimsical. Women in French statues are generally mythical, semi-clad figures representing the Republic of France or are depicted as saints. In 2019, Secretary of State Marlène Schiappa allocated over a billion euros to address gender equality in France. A significant portion has gone to elevating the representation of women in statues, beyond buxom mythical figures and the Virgin Mary.
“Lyon has produced so many remarkable women,” enthuses Delaunay. “Our history is full of incredible women, but their names have been hidden. Louise Labé and Eugénie Niboyet are two of my favorites that we’ve named roads after.” Labé was a 16th-century poet, and Niboyet was a journalist and writer who launched the province’s first feminist newspaper in 1833.
Amongst the other women that have inspired the street names of Lyon are Marie-Louise Rochebillard (1860–1936), who created the first Lyonnais women’s workers union in 1899, Lucie Samuel (1912–2007) a member of the French Resistance who helped to create the South Liberation Movement in 1941 in occupied France, and Wendy Reynard who is the current captain of the Olympique Lyonnais (Lyon’s Women’s Football Team) and French National Women’s Team, and holder of numerous national and European titles. In addition to the obvious benefits of female representation and learning about the role of women in France’s history, not naming every street Victor Hugo will make it infinitely easier to set a GPS.
For the Lyon-based association, Si, si, les femmes existent (yes, women exist), a group campaigning for equality in arts and culture, road names act as a mirror that recounts the city’s history. “Walking the city’s streets isn’t just a part of daily life, it’s part of our relationship with the world,” explains founder Anne Monteil-Bauer. “By ignoring women in street names, we’re effectively saying you don’t exist! You don’t have the right to be named!”
In 2019, feminist collective #NousToutes pasted over the names of 1,400 street signs in Paris to highlight gender violence against women. The #NousToutes campaign is similar to the #MeToo movement in the United States. In 2019, 152 women in France were killed by their partner or ex-partner, and as part of a protest against the Macron government’s silence on sexual violence, they pasted over the names of “male” streets in the capital with the names of victims of gender violence. The group put up 1,400 street signs in a campaign that drew international attention to two key factors: that gender violence is still an enormous problem in France and that in the capital city of the most visited country in the world, only 2% of the streets are named after women.
Currently, 11% of Lyon’s streets are named after women, albeit still an underwhelming figure, it is 5% above the national average and well above Parisian figures. Even with the 90/10 split now in place for new street names, Madame Delaunay estimates that it will be 100 years before the gender imbalance in street naming is close to resolved.
“It’s not only gender that we’re addressing, it’s the lack of diversity and lack of representation of people with disabilities,” adds Delaunay. “We believe that a town that gives equal consideration to its women and minorities is a town with a much truer knowledge of its history, and therefore a better place for us all to live.”