Friday, August 01, 2008

Our dear departments

Although I blog in English, I often use the French spelling of the word département to insist upon the fact that I'm referring to the geographical divisions introduced at the time of the French Revolution. Today, the number of departments in France is exactly 100. This round decimal figure (10 squared) has always struck me as a typical demonstration of French perfectionism. In Britain, on the contrary, the number of counties is 86, but they're not very homogeneous entities. In the US, of course, the number of states is a round figure, 50, but that's only half as nice as 100. Besides, there's an anomaly that would be unthinkable in any rigorous French system: the US capital, Washington, doesn't belong to any state at all! As for my native Australia, the number of geographical and/or administrative divisions lies somewhere between 6 and 8, depending on how you handle the distinction between states and territories.

For many years, the license plates of French vehicles have ended with the designation of the department. For example, Parisian automobiles are labeled 75, those from Lyon are 69, while those from Marseille are 13. Everybody has become aware that it's almost impossible, when you're driving in France, to avoid paying attention to the origins of neighboring vehicles, and forming superficial judgments based upon this information. For example, if I happen to be driving my old Citroën, labeled 38, along a country road, behind a 22 or a 35 from Brittany, I slow down automatically at every approaching intersection, because I'm persuaded that the driver of this vehicle in front of me is likely to get lost, and suddenly brake. Likewise, if I glimpse a 91 to 95 in my rear-vision mirror or, worse still, an Yvelines-based 78 (all of whom come from the Parisian region), I brace myself for a dangerous overtake on the next curve in the road. When I see a vehicle from a deep rural corner of France, I can't help myself from thinking that the driver is surely more accustomed to the wheel of a tractor. When the driver comes from a highly industrial region, I imagine that he's taking time off from handling a truck or a forklift.

Really, this is all very silly and, as I said, superficial. But that's how countless French drivers react on the road. Even their kids on the back seat spend their time, during lengthy holiday excursions, competing against one another in games based upon recognizing the famous 100 department numbers [with 2A and 2B standing respectively for southern and northern Corsica].

Normally, this numbering system on French vehicle plates is so ingrained in popular culture that it would be utterly foolish to try to change it. But foolish technocrats have nevertheless decided to do so... and this has given rise to huge dissension. The new plates were supposed to look like this:

French drivers were shocked by the idea that the identity of their dear department might be relegated to the place occupied by the pair of tiny white zeros on a blue background at the right-hand extremity of the plate. It was a little like asking a member of parliament from Perpignan, say, to hold a handkerchief over his mouth when speaking, to muffle his Catalan accent. The latest amended proposition is more like this:

It's reassuring to learn that, even within the context of such an ephemeral gadget as their automobile, people have a firm desire to remain attached to their geographical origins, and to display with pride this attachment. This is neither abhorrent nationalism nor mindless provincialism. It's called roots.

1 comment:

catherine todd said...

So interesting! Please, keep writing!