Once you’ve wandered through enough cities in France, you begin to notice some similarities beyond cobblestone-lined quarters and fragrant boulangeries. Just as we do in the US, the French name their streets and schools after their most impressive men and women and many of them crop up over and over again. After a while, my friends and I began to joke that France must not have enough famous people, because there seem to be a list of maybe 20 names you can reliably find in any city of a certain size.
Charles de Gaulle is basically a given, and Victor Hugo shows up almost as often (Although, sorry France, no matter how you spell it, “Léonard de Vince” is simply not French). To pack an extra punch, they’ve also named several roads after the entire country: Rue de la République ran behind my house in Chambéry, just as it is a major thoroughfare of Lyon and an avenue in Paris (incidentally, the address of Lycée Voltaire). After meeting several of these “grands hommes” all around the country, I realized I didn’t actually know who many of them were or what they contributed to French history that makes them worthy of gracing so many public infrastructures.
So, I’m starting this series of explorations into France’s biggest and best, according to street and school names. This is Better Know a Frenchman!!!
Spotted: Jules Ferry is the name of an elementary school in Chambéry, a boulevard/place in Paris (where it’s also the name of a lyceée). Even his wikipedia page mentions that numerous primary schools all across France bear his name.
Major Contributions: Jules Ferry was twice Prime Minister of France and Mayor of Paris. As the Minister of Public Instruction, he was a major promotor of Laïcité in schools and basically completely restructured the public and higher education systems to remove the influence of the clergy. He is widely credited for creating l’école républicaine, or the modern Republican school, by making primary education free, mandatory, and secular through a set of 1882 laws known as the Jules Ferry laws. Ferry was also really into colonialism, and directed negotiations which led to the creation of a French protectorate in Tunis, prepared the treaty for the occupation of Madagascar and organized the conquest of Indochina, leading to the disastrous Tonkin Affair. His unpopular views over this political disaster eventually led to his resignation in 1885.
Fun Fact: In December 1887, a man attempted to assassinate Ferry. Five years later, he died in March 1893 due to complications attributed to this wound.
Quoted: “La République doit prendre en main le citoyen du berceau jusqu’à la tombe.”