Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les
If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.
Published: 30 November 2021 13:04 CET Updated: 4 December 2021 17:47 CET
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)
If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.
And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences.
As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender.
So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use.
For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:
Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille
Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille
Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille
But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name.
In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.
Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)
A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor.
Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.
Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris).
For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:
Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet
Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet
Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet
Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet
Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty
Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.
In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:
Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle
Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle
And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there.
When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:
Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas
Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas
Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas
Islands follow more complicated rules.
If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:
Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion
Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica
Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place:
Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica
For the à Islands, you would say:
Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion
When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.
Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives.
No preposition needed
There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include:
Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans
J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans
But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.
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