Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
The system's expansion means plenty of jockeying to name the city's newest points of reference.
If you’re trying to give directions to someplace in Paris, noting the relevant Métro stop is the preferred level of specification. Indicating the arrondissement – Paris has 20 – can be imprecise; specifying the street – Paris has over 6,000 – is a shot in the dark.
Métro stations, on the other hand, divide the city into perfectly sized partitions – chief engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe intended that no place inside the city limits be farther than 500 yards from a station. The station names are the language of Parisian psychogeography.
For that reason, as the Paris region embarks on the largest expansion of its transit system since the early 1900s, the French are paying close attention to how all these planned new stations are named.
The debate isn’t over commercial sponsorship – as in Philadelphia or New York – or even institutional promotion, as in Washington, D.C. This is France, after all, and so the hubbub is over politics, poetry and song (and geographical accuracy).
The latest question is whether the suburban township of Lilas will have a station named for French crooner Serge Gainsbourg, who died in 1991. The connection? Gainsbourg’s first hit was the 1958 single "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas" ("The ticket-puncher of Lilas"), an ode to the suicidal misery of punching Métro tickets in the Porte des Lilas station.
As Line 11 extends beyond Lilas and into the Paris suburbs, six new stations will be added. Lilas mayor Daniel Guiraud sees an opportunity to use one of these stations to boost the area’s cultural footprint. He wants to call the next station—not the Porte des Lilas station, nor the current terminus Mairie des Lilas, but the one after it—“Les Lilas – Serge Gainsbourg,” and erect a bronze statue of the singer outside. The mayor told Le Parisien that the idea has the blessing of English actress Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg’s muse and onetime lover, with whom he recorded the steamy 1969 single “Je t’aime… Moi, non plus,” which was banned from radio networks across Europe and denounced by the Vatican.
For anyone who has listened to "Poinçonneur des Lilas," the association is likely to give pause. The song is a riff on the French word trou, meaning hole: the protagonist punches holes in every ticket, the Métro is a hole, and finally, his job is so dreadful that he considers shooting a hole in his head and winding up in a hole in the ground. The refrain goes, "Little holes, little holes, always little holes." (Click through for the music video, with Serge dressed as a poinçonneur.)
It’s not exactly "New York, New York." But that didn’t stop the city of Paris from using the same logic in 2010 to christen the Serge Gainsbourg Garden, a green highway deck that bridges the Paris ring road at the Porte des Lilas. Guiraud maintains he thought of such a commemoration first, but he may have trouble convincing the Regional Transport Association that there's reason enough to name the new station after Gainsbourg.
The names of new Métro stations are determined by consensus between two regional transport authorities: the RATP and the STIF, plus local officials. The problem for Guiraud is that the new Métro station is about a half-mile from the Jardin Serge Gainsbourg, which makes the name not only geographically not pertinent but perhaps even misleading as well – garden-goers would be better advised to exit two stops earlier at the Porte des Lilas.
The RATP has said it insists on names that are relevant to the streets above, though for the latest new Métro station, they were able to reach a sort of compromise.
Initial plans for "Front Populaire," a stop that opened in December and extends Line 12 north of its 1913 terminus and beyond the city lines, referred to the stop as "Proudhon-Gardinoux," a wordy if accurate designation: the station stands between the Rue Proudhon (named for Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, sometimes considered the father of anarchism), and the Rue des Gardinoux.
But following the death of the Martinique-born poet Aimé Césaire in 2008, local officials campaigned to name the Métro’s 302nd station in Césaire’s honor, establishing a connection between Césaire’s celebration of black identity and the neighborhood’s mixed racial demographics. (To the east of the station, Aubervilliers was the childhood home of the French footballer Abou Diaby, whose parents are Ivorian; to the west lies Saint-Denis, where one-third of the population is foreign-born.)
The RATP countered that the name had to reflect a neighborhood location. (This seems like an obvious restriction, but there’s often a great deal of leeway in the nomenclature – some stops are named for intersections, others for plazas, monuments, or churches. Montparnasse-Bienvenüe is named for the engineer who designed the network, though the 200-foot alley that bears his name above ground is neither directly adjacent to the station nor a landmark in its own right.)
In compromise, the RATP agreed to name the next station after Césaire – that stop, initially known as "Pont des Stains," will border a square that was renamed for the poet in 2008. The Aimé Césaire station will open in 2017.
As for "Proudhon-Gardinoux"? In 2011, the regional transport administration STIF issued a report that revised the name to "Front Populaire," after a nearby square named for the Leftist governing coalition of the late 1930s – the political equivalent of "next stop 'New Deal.'" Despite its undeniable geographic accuracy, this new name did not sit well with some Parisians, and there were murmurs of complaint about the power of the unions, political parity in the toponymy, and so on. But that's that: until Aimé Césaire opens, the last stop on the 12 is Front Pop’.
So, will Serge Gainsbourg's name one day appear on the map? Maybe not. Though the Wikipedia page for the station is already updated to "Les Lilas – Serge Gainsbourg," a spokesperson for the RATP says nothing is final – and geography is not on the side of "next stop Gainsbourg."
Meanwhile, Gainsbourg, Césaire, and Front Populaire are only three stations on the four Métro lines being extended, and the Paris region is also planning to construct nearly 100 new tram stations: expect more renaming battles to come.
Top image: Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons.