A Unique Olympic Ceremony and Warnings from La Fontaine

As an American francophile, I’m fortunate to live in a town that supports several French conversation groups. Two of my favorites are led by French women who have spent decades teaching their native language. These ladies not only know their subject matter inside and out, they’re also lively moderators who I imagine might have enjoyed successful careers in a courtroom or onstage. At a recent gathering, we discussed security plans for the opening ceremony of this summer’s 2024 Olympic Games. I always learn something new from our discussions and this week I wanted to share an amusing French expression I’d never seen before, patte blanche.

Some Context

For the first time in Olympic history, the dazzling kickoff and spectacle of cultural oneupmanship, known as the opening ceremony, will be held outside a stadium. Instead, a procession of over 10,000 athletes—one boat for each nation—will float along the River Seine in the heart of Paris. The 6 km route stretches from the Pont Austerlitz near the Jardin des Plantes to the Trocadero Fountains, across from the Eiffel Tower. If all goes as planned, over 300,000 spectators will line the route on upper and lower walkways bordering the river.

Artist Rendering of Opening Ceremony
Artist Rendering of Olympics 2024 Opening Ceremony, to be televised by NBC Sports

Last week, the police chief of Paris held a press conference outlining security measures to be enforced before and during the opening ceremony. While the games will run from July 26 through August 11, myriad security measures will go into effect beginning on July 18. While most of Paris will remain open, certain streets, bridges, and metro stops will be closed and entrances to various museums, train stations, and other attractions will be limited. Thus, visitors may have difficulty finding their way to popular tourist sites while residents pull out their hair simply trying to cross town on their way to work.

Montrer Patte Blanche

The tightest security will border the 6-km floating parade route which, according to an article in Le Monde, one of France’s leading newspapers, will only be accessible to people who can present patte blanche. The article reads “il faudra patte blanche,” which literally translates to “you’ll need white paw.” The intriguing phrase led me to Google where I discovered that its origins lie in a poem by Jean de La Fontaine in the 1600s.

To paraphrase the story, a wolf disguises his voice to trick a young goat into letting him into the house while the goat’s mother is out. The goat, seeking confirmation that it’s safe to open the door asks the wolf to present a white foot, proof of his mother’s return. As the wolf cannot accommodate the request, his scheming is upended and he returns home.

Le Loup, la Chèvre et le Chevreau
Le Loup, la Chèvre et le Chevreau, engraving by Pierre François Tardieu, circa 1755, after sketch by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (born 1686)

I find it charming that a whimsical expression popularized in the 1600s is still used in the 21st century. Today, the French use patte blanche in a variety of circumstances where one must present credentials before proceeding. Below you’ll find La Fontaine’s delightful poem, closing with a moral of caution, alongside my English translation.

Le Loup, la Chèvre et le Chevreau

Le Loup, la Chèvre et le Chevreau

La Bique allant remplir sa traînante mamelle
Et paître l’herbe nouvelle,
Ferma sa porte au loquet,
Non sans dire à son Biquet :
Gardez-vous sur votre vie
D’ouvrir que l’on ne vous die,
Pour enseigne et mot du guet :
Foin du Loup et de sa race !
Comme elle disait ces mots,
Le Loup de fortune passe ;
Il les recueille à propos,
Et les garde en sa mémoire.
La Bique, comme on peut croire,
N’avait pas vu le glouton.
Dès qu’il la voit partie, il contrefait son ton,
Et d’une voix papelarde
Il demande qu’on ouvre, en disant Foin du Loup,
Et croyant entrer tout d’un coup.
Le Biquet soupçonneux par la fente regarde.
Montrez-moi patte blanche, ou je n’ouvrirai point,
S’écria-t-il d’abord. (Patte blanche est un point
Chez les Loups, comme on sait, rarement en usage.)
Celui-ci, fort surpris d’entendre ce langage,
Comme il était venu s’en retourna chez soi.

The Wolf, the Nanny Goat and her Kid

The Nanny goat heading to fill her udder
And graze on grasses rich as butter,
Locked her door, farewell to bid,
Without neglecting to warn her Kid:
Keep yourself safe and don’t undo
This door to any being who,
Fails to give this simple phrase:
Blast the wolf and all his race!
As she spoke the secret reply
By chance a wolf was passing by;
Impeccably timed without thinking twice
He gathered and kept the Nanny’s advice.
The mother, as you have surely gleaned,
Neglected to see the lurking fiend.
As soon as she left, disguising his tone,
His voice with subtle sweetness shone.
Asking to open with Blast the Wolf,
He waited to enter with this small proof.
The wary Kid peered through a crack.
Show your white foot, or hit the road jack.
An astute request yet just and fair,
White feet on wolves being quite rare.
The villain surprised by this appeal,
Relinquished his quest for that day’s meal.

Où serait le Biquet s’il eût ajouté foi
Au mot du guet, que de fortune
Notre Loup avait entendu ?
Deux sûretés valent mieux qu’une,
Et le trop en cela ne fut jamais perdu.

Where would the kid be if he’d added faith
to the password the wolf
had heard by chance?
Two guarantees are better than one,
The wise have never lost sight of this stance.

Le Loup, la Chèvre et le Chevreau
Le Loup, la Chèvre et le Chevreau, by J. J. Grandville, circa 1840

Enjoy and Stay Safe

If you’re heading to Paris this summer to attend the games, don’t worry about finding your way or staying safe. The French government is spending a boatload (estimated between 3 and 5 billion euros) to ensure its visitors have access to the best of France’s numerous cultural monuments as well as the scheduled sporting events. As far as safety is concerned, 45,000 police officers from around the country have been tasked with securing the capital and the French government plans to add another 2,000 private security agents. That said, remember the lesson of La Fontaine: bring your ID and don’t rely on faith to keep yourself safe.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. A picturesque expression with a memorable origin. It’s too bad that French didn’t choose patte blanche as its word for a computer password — it would fit perfectly and be a breath of poetic fresh air in a field of mostly clunky terminology.

    The Biquet was ahead of his time as an early adopter of two-factor authentication. Speaking of which, is biquet an archaic word? My dictionary does not include it, and online translation sites just translate it to English as “biquet”, which is not helpful. (One site also insisted that the word is Welsh.) And I wouldn’t have expected a Francophile to interpret glouton as “fiend”, although from the point of view of the party he’s trying to eat, perhaps so.

    The boat parade is certainly an innovative idea. Given the current conflicts besetting the international scene, I assume they’ll keep the boats of certain countries well away from those of certain others, lest naval battles break out on the Seine. The enhanced security is understandable. The Olympics will be a tempting target for terrorists, a problem I’m sure the French are very conscious of, given the events of recent years.

    • So true! Patte blanche has a much more poetic ring than mot de passe. Imagine the added confusion most tourists would have trying to connect to WIFI when a hurried Parisian waiter or hotel clerk inserts “entrez patte blanche” in a hastily delivered string of instructions.

      I think you’d really appreciate the site Wordreference.com. They categorize “biquet” as a mot familier, meaning it’s well-known. People also use it to refer to young children. Wordreference is excellent because even if they don’t have a specific word or phrase in their dictionary, it’s still likely to appear in their forum where authorized users weigh in about a word or phrase’s meaning in various contexts.

      That’s interesting that biquet might have Welsh origins. Breton and Welsh both have Celtic roots so the word might have entered the French language via that route but biquest doesn’t look much like a Breton word. When I was reading about patte blanche, I read something theorizing that it might date back to an 8th-century Croation expression?!

      Haha! Let’s hope there’s no warring between two nations ships although it would be entertaining to give each athlete one of those red rubber balls they use for dodgeball and see who’s left standing at the end of 6k.

  2. Très bien. J’avais oublié l’origine de l’expression “montrer patte blanche”.
    I still many reservations about that “inauguration”. The security measures evoked so far I perceive as major breach of the “liberté de circuler.” As far as I know, I don’t find it acceptable. I also have serious fears about the possibility of foreign visitors to access the major sites of interest which are – most of them – included in the security zone. One will need a QR code to access the security code. How will legitimate foreign visitors get one?
    I still remember when the govt launched the health pass. They hadn’t taken French living abroad into consideration. And could not read US QR codes testifying that one had been vaccinated. Took them weeks to fix it…
    And overall, I am extremely skeptical about that ceremony. Country is going down the drain and it seems all Macron cares about are the Games.
    Sorry, pardon for the rant, ma chère Carole…
    Let’s hope that inauguration doesn’t turn out to be a major disaster…
    Bon Dimanche.

    • I was wondering how you get a QR code as well. Perhaps one arrives with your ticket to a museum within the security zone or with a ticket to an Olympic event.

      The expense does seem like a hefty prices for the public to support. Still, I hope everything goes relatively smoothly and that the returns from added tourism dollars will offset much of the outlay. Doigts croisés!

      • Croisons les doigts en effet. I have my doubts about simple things: The ability of the “security personnel” (who I understand have not yet been all recruited) to physically check all legit QR codes. Terminal failure. Network saturation, too many possible breaking points…
        On verra.

    • By the way, thanks for weighing in Brieuc. The French take is such a valuable contribution to anything I have to say. Bonne semaine!

      • Avec plaisir. Not sure it’s a “French take”, it’s more like “my take”, I don’t know what the French think. The press is rather dubious though.

  3. One hears so much about the preparations for the Olympics. Not just in Paris but Marseilles, where the torch arrives. And for years on Instagram, I have been following the kid trying to clean up the Seine.

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