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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

French name wars: Brittany tells Paris to allow the ‘foreign’ letter ‘ñ’

Regional authorities in Brittany have stepped in in an attempt to push the French government to accept the use of the controversial letter 'ñ' in first names after a couple were banned from calling their son 'Fañch'.

French name wars: Brittany tells Paris to allow the 'foreign' letter 'ñ'
Leah Kelley/Pexels
The row between Brittany and authorities in Paris over a so-called “foreign” letter is heating up.
 
The regional council of Brittany voted on Friday to push the Justice minister in Paris to allow the use of the tilde symbol (seen here above the letter n – ñ) in first names.
 
The move came after a couple from Brittany were barred from giving their son the traditional Breton name 'Fañch'. 
 
“It's about defending liberty, that of the choice of the parents. It's about a fundamental right, that's to say fighting linguistic discrimination,” said regional councillor, Isabelle Le Bal. 
 
On September 13th, a tribunal in Quimper in Brittany's Finistère department refused to allow the couple to call their child 'Fañch' on the basis that authorising the “ñ” would be “deliberately breaking the will of the state of law to maintain the unity of the country and equality irrespective of origin”.
 
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France's name police refuse traditional Breton name over a 'foreign' letter

Photo: AFP

“The principle according to which babies' names are chosen by their mothers and fathers must have limits when it comes to using a spelling which includes a character not recognized by the French language,” the court in the town of Quimper said in its judgment. 
 
But the couple, who are appealing the decision, were furious, with his father Jean-Christophe Bernard saying at the time that the battle wasn't over.
 
“He will have his tilde, that's for sure,” Bernard said.
 
“When? We don't know. We'll see with a lawyer and with the town hall what we can do.”
 
An official in Quimper had initially refused to write “Fañch” on the baby's birth certificate, before changing their mind a few days later. Born in May, the baby already has an ID card and passport with the tilde on it.
 
Even though the letter “n” with a tilde (ñ) is more commonly associated with Spanish, it also exists in Breton, the traditional language of Brittany.
 
Indeed “Fañch” is a name borne notably by two Breton writers, Fañch Peru and Fañch Broudig, and is the Breton version of the name François.
 
Parents in France have often fallen foul of the rules regarding baby names.
 
Up until 1993 parents in France had to choose a name for their baby from a long list of acceptable “prenoms” laid out by authorities.
 
But the list was scrapped under President François Mitterand and French parents were given the liberty to be a little bit more inventive.
 
However courts can still ban names if they decide it is against the child's best interests with names like Nutella, Fraise (Strawberry) and Manhattan have also fallen foul of the French name police in recent years.
 
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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
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.

Masculine

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. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

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

Feminine

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 

Plural

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 

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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