France to put home or heart on new car number plates

Breton patriots are cheering a small victory in their long fight to establish a separate identity in France's highly-centralised state. The government is letting Brittany put the local Breton flag and "Breizh", the Breton for Brittany, on new car number plates.

That may not sound much, but it would long have been unthinkable. For centuries the state suppressed regional languages and differences in the interest of a united kingdom or republic. The administrative system of départements was created by the revolutionary regime in 1790 to eradicate loyalty to provincial rulers. The idea of regions with old historic names like Burgundy and Aquitaine emerged in the 20th century but it was not until 1982, under President Mitterrand, that they were given limited powers. Only last year was the constitution changed to describe the regional languages as part of the national heritage.

Number plates entered the picture a couple of years ago when the state decided to centralise all vehicle registration. This caused an outcry because it meant doing away with the two digits that identify the département where the owner lives (there are several départements in each region of mainland France). Many people are attached to their 13, for the Marseille area, or 59 for le Nord and so on.

Under pressure from parliamentarians, the government came up with a compromise that does not make much sense. A département number will appear on the number plates, along with the regional emblem, when they enter circulation this April. But the exercise has been neutered because owners can choose any département they feel like.

In other words, the regional emblem shown on the number plates does not necessarily have anything to do with where the owner lives. It will just show where he or she would like you to think he lives or she comes from. That is like, say, someone living in Philadelphia being able to register their car with Arizona number plates. The only rule is that the département number that you pick has to be matched by its regional emblem.

As the Interior Ministry explains on its website: "You can choose the département with to which you feel attached or have the deepest personal affinity...This way, an Alsatian, a Caribbean, an Auvergnat, a Breton, a Ch'ti (northerner), a Corsican... will be able to display their roots if they live in another region."

The Antillais, or Caribbean, can do this because the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique are French départements and regions.

The scheme has yet to start but it's a safe bet that people from regions with strong identities like Corsica, Brittany or Alsace will be happy to show off their origins. Those from say, l'Ile de France -- Paris and surrounding region -- will not be in such a rush to advertise their heritage. Many living in the undistinguished suburban départements beginning with 9 may wish to recall their provincial ancestry or location of their Mediterranean holiday home.

Most of the regional emblems on the number plates will be the boring corporate-style logos of the local councils. Only two make national statements: Brittany and Corsica. The moor's head on the Corsican flag is already the regional emblem. The Breton flag, known as Gwenn Ha Du, is more politically loaded. Invented by a nationalist in 1923 it has been adopted as a symbol of local separateness. Paris did not want it on the number plates, preferring the innocuous official Breton region logo [below], but relented under pressure from the regional council.

Now the Breton militants are on the warpath again. They are aiming to use the new number plates to advance their struggle for the "reunification" of Brittany. This means restoring the Loire Atlantique, centred on the city of Nantes, to Brittany. The département was severed from historic Brittany and put under what is now the Pays de la Loire region in 1941 by the wartime Vichy state. Breton nationalists living in Nantes aim to stick a Breton flag on their "44" (Pays de Loire) number plates.

Not surprisingly, the new number plate wheeze is drawing ridicule. Hervé Mariton, a southern MP from President Sarkozy's party, said the whole thing was a sop to sentimentalism and a "bizarre mixture of publicity and state administration".

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