The campaign catches up with Napoleon


ohNA REMOTE CONTROL country road that winds through the vineyards, a metal letterbox mounted on a pole marks the address of a hillside farm: 1710, route de Mérindol. From the road, hardly any other dwelling is in sight. The closest neighbor, further down in this valley in southern France, is at number 1460. On the other side, the closest accommodation is at number 2027. Across the country, a confusing system of rural addresses has emerged, which seems more suited to an American suburb than Deep France.

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Napoleon imposed an orderly street numbering system on Paris in 1805. For nearly two centuries, however, even centralized France left rural areas alone. The idea now is to bring order to the distant hills and valleys. A 1994 decision required municipalities with 2,000 or more inhabitants to number their houses. Today, the mayors of the country’s 30,000 small villages say they are also under increasing pressure to do so. The growing use of home delivery, not to mention the efficiency of ambulances and firefighters, all call for clearer identification. The mayors therefore looked at the maps. The Burgundian village of Lugny-les-Charolles counted its 264 houses for the first time in July this year.

The confusion arises from the numbering method chosen by most municipalities. Sequential numbering, common in cities, mimics the system used in Paris. But many small villages have opted for metric numbering instead. It takes a central point in the village – often the town hall – and runs outwards. Thus, a house that is 200 meters along the road from zero point will be numbered 200. Its nearest neighbor, perhaps 270 meters from the center, becomes number 270. At each fork in the road, the numbering start over.

Mayors defend the logic and flexibility of the metric system. This leaves, for example, a lot of house numbers available to use for new homes. Over time, rural France could indeed get used to its new numbered landscape, and the inhabitant of a distant dwelling to live at number 2027. Until then, this remains a system of marvelous Cartesian theoretical clarity which baffles most.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “La vue du No 2027”


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