In a nutshell, the answer is: both are possible.
Except in some very precise cases, cities in French can be feminine (more literary) or masculine (common spoken French)
So, “Paris est beau” or “Paris est belle” – your choice!
Now, let’s discuss… Feel free to add your own two cents in the comment section below! Does one sound better than the other to you?
1 – Are Cities Feminine or Masculine in French?
First, let’s talk about gender in French. In the French language, everything has a gender. If it’s easy for animate beings (then the gender follows the sex), it’s totally random for the rest. A book is masculine. A table is feminine. “Happiness” is masculine, but “joy” is feminine.
What about cities in French? Cities have a proper name, but are they feminine, or masculine?
On this matter, L’Académie Française is not quite clear.
It says that in literary writings, you should prefer the feminine since you are after all talking about “la ville de Paris”, and since “la ville” is feminine, the adjective is feminine.
One vote for “Paris est belle”.
However, L’Académie does note that the masculine is commonly used in spoken French to describe cities.
One vote for “Paris est beau”.
Darn. This is not very conclusive…
Now, according to the major French newspaper “le Figaro” the Académie is very clear on some precise cases:
2 – Cities Are Masculine in French With Some Adjectives
Cities should always be masculine in French when an adjective comes before them, which is often the case when you designate a neighborhood (“un quartier” in French) of said city…
It makes sense since the word “un quartier” is masculine.
- Le vieux Paris – the old Paris districts
- Le grand Paris – Paris and its near subburbs
- Le nouveau Paris – the newer Paris districts
3 – Cities Are Masculine in French With “Tout”
In this case, it’s an expression. “Le tout-Paris” means everyone in Paris.
- Le tout-Paris a vu la dernière exposition au Grand-Palais.
All of Paris saw the latest exhibit at the Grand-Palais.
4 – Cities Are Masculine When Representing a Government or a Sporting Club
When you use the name of a city to represent its government or sporting club, then that name is masculine in French.
- Paris est gagnant. Paris est champion de France.
Paris (here the sporting club of Paris) is the winner. Paris is France’s champion.
- Paris a voté contre la proposition.
Paris (in this case, the government of Paris) voted against the proposal.
5 – Some Cities Have an Article in French
Some cities include an article in their names: in this case, the city becomes masculine or feminine accordingly.
- Masculine cities in French:
Le Caire, Le Havre, Le Vésinet, Le Cap..
- Feminine cities in French:
La Ferté-Alais, La Havane, La Nouvelle-Orléans, La Turque…
6 – City Gender in French Culture
If you look into the common usage, you’ll find many examples, some saying Paris is feminine, others saying Paris is masculine… The examples come from the super useful French forum of Wordreference.org.
- “Paris, c’est une blonde” – song by Mistinguette
- “Mon vieux Paris” – song by Maurice Chevalier – however here you do have the adjective “vieux” in front
- “Paris brûle-t-il” René Clément
- “Paris brisé ! Paris martyrisé ! Paris libéré !” Général de Gaulle
- “Paris est amour, elle ne s’explique pas. Parce que oui, Paris est femme” – Mélanie Delaroche Curtil
- “Paris ne s’endort pas. Elle est léthargique” – Arthur Levassor
- “Paris t’es Belle” Mickey 3D
7 – An Old Grammar Rule
According to L’Office Québécois de la langue française
- Cities ending in a mute E or ES tend to be feminine in French
Rome, Venise, Londres, Vienne, Lisbonne, Bruxelles, Marseille… are feminine
- Cities ending in another letter are masculine
Paris, Montréal, New-York, Lyon, Orléans… are masculine
So, according to this rule, you should say:
- “Le Paris de mon enfance” (The Paris of my childhood)
- but “La Rome de mon enfance”… (The Rome of my childhood)
And I have to admit that this does “sound” right to me.
The article then adds that this is only a tendency, and that the rule is not absolute, and that in French cities tend to be masculine in spoken French, and feminine in literature.
So back to square one.
8 – My Own Opinion About City Genders in French
I usually refer to cities in the feminine. To me “Paris est belle” sounds better than “Paris est beau”. Why? Maybe because in my mind, Paris is always linked to “la ville de Paris”, and therefore it’s logical that it would be feminine.
Or maybe because it simply sounds better to my ear.
But unless I was trying to be witty, or a bit poetic, I won’t say “Paris est belle” nor “Paris est beau”. Because it would be making a language statement. Any French person would hesitate here because the usage is just not clear!
So it’s likely I would just avoid this construction altogether.
- Paris est une belle ville.
- C’est beau, Paris (using the c’est + masculine adjective construction)
And then there is music… The music of a language. I would absolutely say “le Paris de mon enfance”, but I continue to think “Paris est belle” sounds better :-)