French Word of the Day: ‘Douane’ (a smuggler’s worst nightmare)

If you're planning to bring goods into France from abroad this is a word you need to know.

French Word of the Day: 'Douane' (a smuggler’s worst nightmare)

Why have we chosen 'douane' as le mot du jour?

Douane is a word that pops up frequently in French news headlines about trade, taxes, drug trafficking and now more than ever – Brexit.

France’s Transport Ministry has been up in arms in recent days following an EU proposal to drop the current UK-EU douanes in northern France and instead connect Ireland to the Benelux, even though the French ports are much closer.

Le Parisien headline reading “How French Customs is preparing for a hard Brexit”

So what exactly does 'douane' mean?

'(La) Douane' is the French word for customs, pronounced ‘dwan’ if all those consecutive vowels are confusing you.

You may be surprised to hear that 'douane' actually has a place in the Oxford Dictionary of English, described as a “custom house in France or other Mediterranean countries”. 

Its origins are Persian (dīwān, ‘office’) and its first usage in France dates back to the 13th century, which gives you a rough idea of how much weight this word has had in trade throughout the centuries.

France of course has its own official body in charge of customs, la Direction générale des douanes et droits indirects (DGDDI), which dates back to before the French Revolution.

Can you give me some examples of how to use douane in French?

You use it in the same way as in English to describe going through customs at the airport:

Les passagers vont passer à la douane. 
The passengers are going to go through customs.

There’s also using it to describe the authority that controls imported/exported goods:

La douane a saisi mes cigarettes. 
Customs has seized my cigarettes.

When talking about the taxes on imports and exports:

Les frais (ou droits) de douane sont élevés pour ce produit.
Customs duty is high for this product.

There’s also the derivative verb dédouaner, which has several meanings, not all related to customs.

To pay customs:

Il faut dédouaner les marchandises reçues de l'étranger.
You have to pay customs duties on goods from abroad.

To clear one’s name or get oneself off the hook (se dédouaner):

Quelle chance j’ai eu de pouvoir me dédouaner dans cette affaire!
I’m so lucky to have been able to clear my name after this incident!

It can also be used to say 'free oneself of responsibilities/accountability'.

Le président cherche à se dédouaner de ses responsabilités
The president is looking to rid himself of his responsibilities

Headline by L'Obs reading “Benalla: Collomb claims no responsibility, blames police commissioner and Macron's cabinet.”

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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.


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


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.