Yesterday was the first day of my road-trip through France, and I broke the only rule I had fixed myself – no more than one département per day. The idea was to travel slow, to give a chance to all the “drive-through” places of France, those with not much tourist attention, the deep France (“la France profonde“). Noble intentions indeed…
France is divided into 101 départements: 96 in the métropole or Hexagone (continental France, including Corsica. Don’t ask. And if you meet someone from Corsica, my advice is, don’t mention it.) and five DOMs (Départements d’Outre-Mer, literally the departements-beyond-the-sea: Guadeloupe, Martinique, La Réunion, Mayotte, Guyane).
Like many things in France, the départements originate from the French Revolution. In 1790, in a bid to move away from the management of the country via dioceses and aristocratic fiefdoms, the territory was divided in a completely new way. To bring state institutions to the people, départements were of a size so that anybody should be able to reach the préfecture, the main administrative centre, within a day of travelling on horseback. Anybody with a horse, that is. But still.
As for the names of the new départements, our Revolutionaries were scrupulously blind to history: this was a new era, based on reason, not tradition! Gone were the names attached to aristocratic titles, Brittany, Normandy, Burgundy, Aquitaine, Perche, Beauce – territories with a cultural and historical identity of their own.
Geography ruled instead, with 68 départements, more than two thirds, named after rivers, sometimes qualified (Loire Atlantique, Seine Maritime) or combined (Loir-et-Cher, Eure-et-Loire). By the way, in French, we differentiate the rivers which flow to the sea (le fleuve – In France there are the Loire, the longest, the Seine, the Rhine, the Rhône, and the Garonne) and the rivers which flow to other rivers (la rivière). OK, all rivers go to the sea ultimately, so there is a bit of arbitration involved. But a fleuve, especially if it is navigable, shapes and connects the areas it crosses in a way a rivière doesn’t. The département of Haute-Loire, in the South-Eastern quarter of France, is a reminder of how long a detour that great fleuve takes before flowing into the Atlantic. Its source is so much closer to the Mediterranean Sea. But then we wouldn’t have the delightful vallée de la Loire.
Twelve départements are named after mountains (Pyrénées Orientales, Ardennes, Puy-de-Dôme, etc.), six after islands (Corse-du-Sud, Guadeloupe, etc.), five after coasts and coastal features (Manche, Calvados, etc.). As new départements were added, historical names were given a slim chance, such as when Savoie and Haute-Savoie were created in 1860.
The number of départements waxed and waned. France gained territories, such as Savoie, and Territoire de Belfort. Other départements disappeared, in the North-East with the new state of Germany incorporating the Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin and Moselle in 1870, returned for good in 1945. Three départements made up Algeria, which is telling; no other colony was so incorporated into the French territory and psyche. They disappeared in 1962 when Algeria became independent.
Other départements had their territories modified to reflect better the realities on the ground. Some names have changed, usually to make the département more attractive. Charente-Inférieure became Charente-Maritime, Basses-Pyrénées became Pyrénées-Atlantiques for example.
Each departement has a number associated. Ever the rationalists, the French administrators ordered them by alphabetical order. 01 is l’Ain, 02 is l’Aisne, 03 is l’Allier, etc. My parents’ generation (born in the 50’s) learned them by heart, including the list of the préfectures. My generation has a less solid grasp on those, or maybe I’m only speaking for myself. For me, it is more of a case of “36? I don’t know 36. 35 is Ille-et-Villaine, 38 is Isère, so it must starts with an i. Indre? Yes, it must be 36 Indre and 37 Indre-et-Loire.” Except that with changes of names, and the different redesigns of territories, this system isn’t fool-proof. Côtes d’Armor is 22, whereas Côte d’Or is 21, for example, because Côtes d’Armor used to be Côtes du Nord. The reference to the North was damaging to tourism, so the attribution of numbers by alphabetical order was… relegated.
Département numbers are everywhere around you, as soon as you arrive in France. Almost every car has a number on the right on the number plate, on a blue background. They used to be compulsory, and indicated the département where the owner lived. Now they no longer form part of the official registration of vehicles. But these clinical numbers, with no poetry to them at all, and the départements associated, so artificial, persist nonetheless.
Most people choose to put the département they live in, as before. But some choose the one where they grew up, or where they feel a particular affinity. 75 (Seine, i.e. Paris) and 92 (Hauts de Seine, just west of Paris) have acquired a reputation of appallingly aggressive driving. Similarly, the Corsican numbers (2A and 20. Don’t ask.) are used to intimidate people and be left alone. Why? Well, three facts to help you understand. 1. Napoleon was Corsican. 2. In the fifties, my grandfather, a gendarme, was given the choice to be posted in Algeria (in the midst of pre-Independence “events”) or in Corsica. He chose Corsica, and thankfully survived. 3. Only in 1998 the préfet Claude Erignac, the representative of the Président of the République on the island, was shot dead. It’s just wise to leave Corsicans alone.
Another département, Seine-St-Denis, is unfortunately fairly typical of the French banlieues you see in films or on the news. That is in spite of the beautiful Stade de France, and of the cathedral Saint Denis, cradle and masterpiece of gothic architecture. Its number, 93, is the only one where the digits are usually told separated (neuf-trois).This comes from the vibrant rap scene that emerged there in the mid-90s, with bands like NTM. That way this downtrodden, deprived area found an identity to be proud of, appropriating the number of its département.
Yesterday I started in the Yvelines (78), west of Paris, went north into the Val d’Oise (95) and turned west into the Eure (27), following the Seine (the river). Simply following my nose, I travelled through three départements in one day. Oops.
But yesterday I also crossed from Ile-de-France, the region around Paris, into Normandy. Orchards and pastures progressively replaced the fields of cereals. The houses more and more displayed the typically normand colombages. I passed a rock, at Port-Mort, used as the boundary between the duchy of Normandy and the Kingdom of France. I also went to Château-Gaillard, a beautiful castle with a stunning view over the Seine, built (illegally) by Richard Lionheart and always disputed between the French and the English.
And as this transition in landscape and in history rolled by, my 1-day 1-département rule fell by the wayside. With all due respect to the départements, you can’t ignore history.