The French Obsession With First Names

Choosing a child’s first name in France can lead to political strife, linguistic battles and even intervention by the anti-terror squad

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
FILE PHOTO: Do parents have the right to call their child 'Nutella'? In France, it’s complicated
FILE PHOTO: Do parents have the right to call their child 'Nutella'? In France, it’s complicated Credit: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

1. It’s a French version of the struggle over dotting i’s and crossing t’s. The elected regional council of Brittany has just approved the usage of the letter ñ, which is topped with the diacritical mark known as a tilde. The tilde doesn’t exist in the French alphabet, but it can be found in Spanish, Portuguese and other languages. The point is that it exists in Breton.

2. Like every story about Brittany, this one begins with a Nutella-filled crepe. A couple from the city of Quimper who owns a famous crepe restaurant decided at the beginning of the wife’s pregnancy that if they had a daughter, they would name her “Nutella.” If they had a son, they’d call him “Fañch,” the old Breton version of François. This name is associated with a popular blog that reviews crepes. When the baby, a boy, appeared, this past May 14, the happy father, Jean-Christophe Bernard, went to register him with the authorities. A representative of the French Republic refused to do so, claiming that use of the tilde would run counter to the principle of linguistic unity in France. When the father rejected the suggestion to call the son “François,” instead, the registration official gave him three days to come up with an alternative. After that the Republic would choose the baby’s name as it saw fit.

3. France waged a campaign against the Breton language throughout the 19th century, with attempts to impose the French language on the refractory province peaking in the 1930s. Children were punished if they spoke Breton in the schoolyard, farmers who used Breton even incidentally – for example, by giving a cow a Breton name – risked losing their state subsidies, and the numerous Petit Beurre and galette factories in Brittany were required to erase any vestige of Breton on their premises if they sought to apply for government contracts. Currently, less than 5 percent of the local population can speak basic Breton – a high rate considering the extent of repressive measures that were employed.

Whether due to generosity or concern over the future of the language, the Education Ministry changed its approach in the early 2000s. Brittany now boasts a thriving network of bilingual schools, which employ both French and Breton. Locals claim that this attests to parents’ wish to return to their roots; Parisians argue it’s a manifestation of nationalist racism, since these schools are a free and accessible way of avoiding integration with immigrant children, for whom knowledge of Breton is not something to which they aspire.

In any case, our restaurateurs did not give up, and in the short time they were given, they appealed to the Interior Ministry. They claimed that the registration official’s arbitrary decision constituted linguistic discrimination against them, and thus constituted a violation of the law (the law in question was initially enacted in order to prevent automobile-assembly plants from prohibiting their employees from speaking Arabic to one another). The court rejected the petition, saying the parents had not shown that the authorities employed arbitrary considerations. The parents appealed to their representatives in the regional council, and the affair unfolded in a manner the French love.

Credit: Rhian / Rhian vK

4. The French obsession with the process of choosing first names is well documented in literature and research. This is related to the astounding fact that one cannot change one’s given name in France. As soon as a newborn is named (within a tight deadline of three days), there is no going back. A child can change his or her name upon reaching the age of 18 only if he or she can prove that it causes him or her significant psychological harm. If the harm is not significant or if none can be proven, the process can drag on for years, with an ultimate failure almost guaranteed. One of the biggest best-sellers in France this year is the “Book of First Names, 2017,” a guide that comes out annually, with hundreds of thousands of copies sold. The Interior Ministry offers free access to a database of names, which allows for a variety of ways of cross-referencing – such as associations with days of the week, street names, sound and rhyming. One can find, for example, that the popularity of the name “Charlie” dropped by 81 percent after the attack on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Male biblical names are in full flourish again, and in Paris the trinity of Adam, Rafael and Gabriel rules the roost. Mohammed dropped from sixth to eighth place in popularity this year, but among girls’ names, Fatima is on a constant upswing, ranking fourth in popularity this year.

5. One of the decisions made by François Mitterrand when he became president was to allow parents to give children the name of their choice. Up until 1993, parents had to choose from an approved list of only 200 names. This sweeping measure still required ratification of each moniker by the Interior Ministry: Officials can still refuse to register names that they feel could harm a child. One case that made the news in recent years occurred when parents wanted to name their child Mohammed Merah, after the terrorist who carried out an attack in Toulouse. Not only did the registry office refuse to approve the name, it also alerted the anti-terror unit. Dozens of rejections are published on court websites every year. In Brittany, there are many cases of parents wishing to name their child “Babord” (the port side of a boat) or Tribord (starboard), as befitting a seafaring people. Interior Ministry officials in Paris refuse to approve this name, as befits a nation of clerks. The name “Moses” – spelled “Moche” in French – is also frequently turned down, since it closely resembles the slang word for “ugly.” Less understood was the opposition to the name “Joyeux” (happy). Officials believed, and the courts upheld, the opinion that this name would lead to an unhappy childhood in a French schoolyard.

6. The results of the Catalan referendum last month were received with surprise and apprehension in the French Pyrenees. Tensions there between Catalans (who recognized France in a treaty dating to 1659) and residents whose origins were in the north are present even without a reminder from Spain. On this backdrop, the name of a baby in Brittany can have political significance. It would have been much easier if the Bernards had had a baby girl. They would have asked to name her Nutella, and the official could have turned down the request without it being seen as a political statement. In January 2015, the highest court in France heard an appeal by parents from the Picardy region, who insisted on calling their daughter Nutella. The judges affirmed the registrar’s decision to prefer Ella, which is close to Nutella in sound but not in its potential for ridicule. “Ella is a very nice name,” said the ruling, a statement with which I can only concur. Regarding the baby in Brittany, the council lodged an official petition with the Justice Ministry, asking it to change the ruling after the decision to approve use of the tilde. The ministry said it would consider the petition before the first birthday of the child, whose name is not yet Fañch.