The health passport is feminine, rules French language guardian

France's health passport - requiring proof of vaccination, Covid recovery or a negative test to enter venues including bars, museums and cafés - has been quite a controversial idea, but now at least one argument has been solved.

The health passport is feminine, rules French language guardian
Would there be fewer protests if the pass became a passe? Photo: Stephane du Sakatin/AFP

The health passport in French is known as a pass sanitaire – but should it be a masculine le pass or a feminine la passe?

Until now the styling had been masculine and the reporting in the French press, as well as government communications have referred to it as a pass sanitaire.

Even president Emmanuel Macron used this styling when he announced the introduction of the health passport on July 12th.

However, now the French language guardians the Academie française have got involved.

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Not only is pass incorrect, says the Academie in its statement, but – even worse – it’s an Anglicism.

The ruling reads: “The noun ‘pass‘ is an Anglicism to be avoided.

“In French, it could be replaced by the feminine word passe, which can designate a passage permit, a laissez-passer.

“In Stendhal’s Mémoires d’un touriste (1838), we read: “Le sous-préfet […] m’a donné une passe pour l’extrême frontière (The sub-prefect […] gave me a pass for the border) and in Balzac’s Le Martyr calviniste (1841): “Nul ne quitte la ville sans une passe de monsieur de Cypierre, fût-il, comme moi, membre des États” (No one leaves the city without a pass from Mr. de Cypierre, even if he is a member of parliament, like me).”

The Academie does add that a different construction could make the passport masculine, but it would still be spelled passe.

It explains: “In the sense of laissez-passer [a pass or permit] passe, which is somewhat outdated, could be replaced by a masculine form: le passe, short for passe-partout.

“Either of these forms would easily render the meaning contained today in the Anglicism pass, especially since the verb ‘to pass’ is borrowed from the French passer, at little cost, le pass sanitaire and le pass culture would thus become le passe sanitaire and le passe culture“.

The Academie française has previously ruled on Covid – Covid itself is feminine, la Covid, even though le coronavirus is masculine.

But while la Covid has become the widely accepted form, some of the Academie’s other pronouncements are less well observed.

It has over the years made a concerted effort to replace Anglicisms – particularly tech-related terms – with French alternatives, but many of these have failed to take off.

The most notorious example is wifi, where the Academie wanted to replace le wifi (pronounced whiffy in French) with the cumbersome l’access sans fil à internet (wireless access to the internet) – they were widely ignored by the French who continue to use le wifi.

But on health passports, Macron is officially wrong – at least when it comes to spelling.

OPINION Macron’s health passport is an unsung triumph for France 

Member comments

  1. Thank God, the English language doesn’t have genders for nouns! It’s one of the most advantageous facets of the English language when I tell my French pupils that they don’t have to worry about the genders of everyday things such as cows in the field, or cars in garages, or whatever. Most other (dare I say “inferior “) languages have masculine or feminine or even neuter genders. O dear…those poor Brits who need to mug up on foreign genders….my heart goes out to them!

    1. In Modern English, pronouns are largely still gendered, as are ships and some other entities (e.g., referred to as “she”). Old English was gendered (three genders).

      As far as I am aware, in Modern English there is no ungendered pronoun *unambiguously* for a single individual human. You can use “they” (yes, it is singular as well as plural (and has been used in a singular sense for centuries, OED traces it back to the 14th century)), or in some contexts, “you”, but there is no (known to me) one-word pronoun substitution for the simple “she or he” (sometimes written “(s)he” or similar).

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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.