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French street signs

French street signs

12 Feb 2013 BY Dominique's Villas

Behind every French street sign lies a story, be it of triumph, tragedy or travesty. Almost every French town has a rue JEAN JAURES, named after the radical socialist and pacifist - an unlikely hero. Intermittent member of the chamber of deputies, he was a lecturer in philosophy at the university of Toulouse. Jaurès was a leader of the campaign to have the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus overturned, long before this became a popular cause. One of the founder editors in 1904 of the famous left-wing newspaper, L'Humanité, Jaurès opposed armed insurrection as a means of achieving political change. The French socialist party was split over the correct response to German militarism. Jaurès had no faith in the French Triple Entente with Britain and Russia and advocated peace through dialogue between the big powers. During the summer of 1914, with war fever at its height, Jaurès continued to argue for peaceful negotiations between the European governments. On 31st July, 1914, he was assassinated by a young French nationalist who wanted France to declare war on Germany. #

Rue LAVOISIER is another common street name, recalling the father of modern chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier. In the 18th century Lavoisier introduced quantitative chemistry involving accurate measurements. His balance could weigh to 0.0005g, enabling him to measure changes in mass that happened during his experiments on combustion. He made fundamental discoveries that led to our understanding of oxidation, combustion, and respiration. From air Lavoisier isolated the gases known nowadays as oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and showed that carbon dioxide could be produced by burning charcoal. He calculated the proportion of oxygen in the air, and showed that oxygen was removed during the process of burning. As a result of this work, he developed the theory that when substances burn they combine with oxygen from the air and form an oxide. His ideas were supported by detailed observations and accurate measurements. Lavoisier was allowed to keep most of his income as a tax farmer to support his work and was well regarded at Court. After the fall of the Bastille, however, he was soon numbered among a large number of quasi civil servants regarded as enemies of the Revolution. Believing himself to be above petty political considerations, Lavoisier continued with his high profile experiments. None of the leaders of the Terror had any interest in chemistry and simply saw him as a collaborator of King Louis XVI. In 1794 he was sent to the guillotine.

One of the few women to feature regularly among the street names of France is another scientist, MARIE CURIE, twice winner of the Nobel prize. Born Marie Sklodowska in Warsaw, the daughter of a primary school teacher, she went to study at the Sorbonne. Here she met her future husband Pierre Curie, professor of the School of Physics, who died in a carriage accident in 1906. The Curies’ work on radioactivity and the discovery of the chemical element, radium, was pivotal in the development of x-rays in surgery. Marie helped to install ambulances with x-ray equipment for use in the first world war, driving them herself to the front. Her death in 1934 from leukaemia was caused by her exposure to high-energy radiation during her research. Marie’s eldest daughter, Irène, was also the winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Some street names are a travesty when their true origin is discovered. Take, for example, near the Marais district of Paris, the name PETIT MUSC, conjuring up a sweet smell of the countryside. It turns out that this was a lane on the edge of Paris frequented by prostitutes. In old French, the lane was known as ‘la pute qui y muse’, ‘the road where the whore goes walking’. When spoken rapidly, this became ‘petit musc’.