A security worker talks to one of the feminist group members about their street sign stunt. Photo: The Local
A feminist organization has changed the street signs of a Paris neighbourhood so that they bear women's names instead, protesting the lack of streets in the city named after famous female figures.
Tourists in central Paris got a shock on Wednesday to find that almost all of the street signs on the Ile de la Cité had been changed.
Instead of the Quai de la Tournelle near the Notre Dame cathedral, signs informed passersby that they were standing at the Quai de Nina Simone. Elsewhere, streets were "renamed" after pioneer lawyer Jeanne Chauvin, record-holding sailor Florence Arthaud, and France's first qualified female doctor Madeleine Brès.
The move was a stunt by outspoken French feminist organization Osez le Féminisme, members of which spent Tuesday evening covering around 60 of the real street signs with those only bearing women's names. The move was a protest against the fact that just 2.6 percent of the streets in the capital are named after notable women.
(Quai de Nina Simone near the Notre Dame Cathedral. Photo: The Local)
A spokesperson for the organization said that they were renamed with names of women who made "incredible contributions" to France's history.
When The Local walked the streets of the central island, handfuls of tourists were standing on street corners consulting their maps. Many were asking for directions.
One Italian family burst out in laughter to learn the reason for why their map wasn't matching the road signs.
Others were pleased to hear that people were taking a stand for equality.
"I think it's a good idea," said a man on holiday from Colorado in the US. "It's a continuing effort of equality. Maybe some day there'll be an Avenue Hilary Clinton."
(The Rue Madeleine Bres. Photo: The Local)
A Frenchman in his sixties from the Champagne region added that he welcomed the move as it was "better than keeping a bunch of unknown names from the past".
Not all Parisians were impressed with the change, however, even if it is only for one day.
"I don't believe in feminism - I believe it equality," said a young Mexican woman named Leonor, who works as a tour guide in Paris.
"Everyone should be equal. Do you really think the name of a street is that important? I'd prefer to hear about equal rights and equal pay. I don't see streets signs as the biggest issue right now."
Aurelie, a spokeswoman from the feminist group on the scene, said that confused tourists were a good sign.
"They'll realize and talk about it, they will talk to their friends, maybe they'll start understanding a bit more," she told The Local.
(Another re-baptised sign by the Notre Dame Cathedral. Photo: The Local)
Her colleague Aurelia added that while equal pay and equal rights were indeed a key point of feminism, starting small was a key approach.
"Little kids walking around Paris will subconsciously be taking in the history of France through things like street signs. They'll think that France was built by great men - but it's important they know about the important women too," she explained.
The organization hopes that their new campaign, which coincides with the 45th anniversary of the women’s liberation movement, will be taken seriously by Paris’s mayor Anne Hildago, with whom they hope to meet to discuss a “concrete action plan”.
“Overall around 32 percent of streets in Paris contain proper nouns," group spokeswoman Marie Allibert said over the phone.
"We want half of these streets to be named after women. We are not saying that the streets named after men should be changed to women’s names but that streets named after things such as Rue de la Chappelle could be changed to a woman’s name.”
The organization also hopes to give prevalence to women who are famous for their contributions to society, rather than their relationship to men.
“While there are plenty of men honoured on street signs, just 160 women, mostly wives or daughters of famous men, are given prominence in Paris,” the group noted.
(The team from Osez le Féminisme. Photo: The Local)
“But our history is bursting with female scientists, writers, activists, politicians, artists and Resistance fighters which deserve recognition in our country.”
The organization also notes the lack of female figures represented in the city’s public transport network.
“There’s just one metro station named after a woman, Louise Michel. But that’s not even in central Paris – it’s in Levallois,” Allibert said.
"There are two other stations where the names are attached to male names like Pierre et Marie Curie and Barbès – Rochechouart (after the French nun Marguerite de Rochechouart de Montpipeau)."
Other women given street names included writer Simone de Beauvoir, scientist Marie Curie, and less well-known figures like concert pianist Micheline Ostermeyer, who was also an Olympic gold medalist.
Other street names in the newly christened "Fémicité" include foreign female figures such as the American scientist and cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock, who in 1983 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and the American jazz singer Nina Simone.
And there is hope that the mayor will take the initiative seriously. in 2012, officials named nine of the 18 stops on the 3B tramline after women, following complaints about the lack of female figures represented on the public transport network.
(Another street in the first arrondissement. Photo: AFP)
Additional reporting by Sophie Inge.