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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

The words that defined 2019 in France

So 2019 has been a big year for news in France, but now two French authors have published a collection of words that they feel define the last 12 months. Here are some of them.

The words that defined 2019 in France
A certain yellow item of clothing is one of the words that defined the year. Photo: AFP

French authors Delphine Jouenne and Amélie Chabrol have published Un bien grand mot which analyses some of the terms that cropped up most in news reports over the year.

Here's a look at some of the words they included:

The majority of 'yellow vest' protesters were peaceful, but there were also scenes like this. Photo: AFP

Gilet jaune – yellow vest

Of course it had to include the most high profile protest movement of the year, possibly the decade. The 'yellow vest' protests actually began at the end of 2018, but continued weekly throughout 2019, albeit with much reduced numbers since the summer.

The phrase gilet jaune of course already existed in French – referring to the high-vest vest that drivers are required by law to carry – but 2019 was the year it came to mean a protest or protester. Newspapers now regularly use 'yellow vest march' 'yellow vest violence' or 'yellow vest leaders' to refer exclusively to the protest movement of people who feel marginalised and forgotten by the French government.

Identifying clothing with protest movements has a long history in France, from the sans-Culottes of the French revolution to the Bonnets rouges of the 2013 fuel tax protests.

Acte – act

Also included in the book were several 'yellow vest' related words, including acte. A word that again already existed in French, it was co-opted by the 'yellow vest' movement and has come to mean the latest round of yellow vest protests, so news sites will regularly refer to 'Acte 53: En détail', which is widely understood to be relate to details of the 53rd week of 'yellow vest' protests.

In this banner, protesters declare that the French government are the real hooligans. Photo: AFP

Casseur – rioter or hooligan

Not a new concept, but one that has also come to have an association with the 'yellow vests' is the people who go on demos with the express purpose of causing trouble. Casseur literally translates as 'breaker' and if you've seen news footage of masked people smashing up bus stations and setting fire to street furniture, they are casseurs. Also referred to as Black Bloc – the more organised type of hooligan – they sadly tend to dominate the news coverage at the expense of the many thousands of peaceful protesters, whether they are 'yellow vests' or strikers.

Feminicide – the murder of a woman, usually by her partner or former partner

Not a new problem and sadly not specific to France, but 2019 was the year that the shockingly high rate of domestic violence related killings in France really hit the headlines.

Feminist groups began staging protests across the country, drawing attention to the hundreds of women killed every year in France by current or former partners. The government launched a consultation exercise and a package of measures aimed at tackling the problem is currently making its way through the French parliament.

 

Empreinte – footprint

Originally used to refer to printing, this now means a virtual footprint. So you can have empreinte carbone – carbon footprint – empreinte écologique – eco footprint – or empreinte numérique – digital footprint.

The banner declares a 'climate emergency'. Photo: AFP

La crise écologique – the climate crisis

Also on an environmental note, this phrase has become a lot more widespread in 2019. Changement climatique – climate change – is still used but with a greater sense of urgency to the problem, the French parliament, as well as several local authorities, declared urgence climatique – climate emergency – this year.

Trottinettes – scooters

These have been on the roads in France for several years, but reached something of a crisis point in 2019, particularly in Paris, earning themselves many column inches in the newspapers and an entry in the book.

Originally marketed as a bit of a plaything, trottinettes électrique (electric scooters, often referred to simply as trotinettes) were then pushed as a transport alternative for big cities like Paris, where dozens of different operators began offering dockless scooter hire.

This brought with it a host of problems, including people riding them at speed on the pavement, abandoning them on the road or in parking spaces or simply flinging them into the nearest river. Over 2019 cities like Paris and Marseille lost patience, bringing in new restrictions on scooter riders and operators.

The French government then added trottinettes to the Highway Code, meaning users are now covered by the rules of the road, bringing to end the free-for-all year of the scooter.

Electric scooters are a common sight in France's bigger cities. Photo: AFP

The book's authors see a common theme emerging from some of the most-used words of 2019.

As they told French newspaper Le Figaro: “Lack of sincerity, search for transparency, lack of trust, the year 2019 seems to be turning into a year full of pretences.

“The words reflect the movement driven by citizens wishing in turn to create new conditions for their future (debate, action) while returning to the fundamentals.”

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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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