The more I travel in France, the more I’m struck by one particular aspect of their cities, and how different they are in this regard from American cities.

Every French city of a certain size — say, 50,000 people or more but sometimes far smaller — seems to have boulevards named for the same long roster of French heroes. Some names I recognize — De Gaulle, Victor Hugo, Voltaire — but others I had to look up. Why, I’ve wondered, do Léon Blum, Gambetta, Maréchal Foch and Jean Jaurès merit near-universal recognition this way?

  • Blum – the first Socialist and the first Jew to serve as Prime Minister of France, an office he held three times. After the Nazi occupation he refused to flee the country and was eventually captured by the Vichy government, transferred to the Nazis and sent to Buchenwald and Dachau. He survived the war and was rescued by Allied troops.
  • Gambetta – a statesman who, as a member of the National Assembly, advocated against Napoleon III’s Second Empire and for the establishment of a moderate republic. As Minister of the Interior, during the ill-conceived Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and amid controversy over the nation’s direction after shattering defeats on the battlefield, Gambetta famously escaped from Paris by hot-air balloon. Served briefly as Prime Minister 1881-82.
  • Marshal Foch – a highly-decorated military hero of the First World War. He was largely responsible for stopping German advances towards Paris, thereby protecting the Capital, and later for planning the so-called Grand Offensive, which led to Germany’s defeat.
  • Juarès – leader of the French and International Socialist movements in their early years. A pacifist, he advocated diplomatic means of preventing the First World War. He was assassinated in Paris in 1914.

Still further, American presidents Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy also have boulevards, avenues or places in their honor across the entire republic.

I’m not going to spend all day researching this but I’ll go out on a limb and suppose that Patton Places, Farragut Squares and Bradley Boulevards don’t exist in Topeka, Baton Rouge and Spokane. There’s probably not a Dulles Drive in Louisville or Tallahassee. And I very much doubt you’d find yourself cruising down Kissinger Street in Fargo.

There are exceptions, of course. Downtown Chicago is a criss-cross of Presidents. Boston recognizes the Founders with abandon. And there are regional examples. In Texas, the land of my birth, it’s hard to go to the supermarket without crossing something called Houston, Travis, Crockett or Fannin. California has its Sutter and Fremont streets (though it’s strange to me that they don’t figure in Southern California). But there just seems to be a very different approach to street-naming here in France and back home.

Now, I’m aware of the unwritten rule that Americans shouldn’t criticize their country when abroad, and I don’t mean to be doing that. I’m merely sharing some observations. That said, it does strike me as remarkable that the ten most popular street names in America are:

  • Second
  • Third
  • First
  • Fourth
  • Park
  • Fifth
  • Main
  • Sixth
  • Oak
  • Seventh

A famous person – Washington, of course – doesn’t enter the list before #17. What does that say about us?