This article describes the conventions for using people's names in France, including the norms of custom and practice, as well as the legal aspects.
Styles and forms of address
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (November 2012)|
Madame, Mademoiselle, Monsieur
In normal polite usage, a person's name is usually preceded by:
- Monsieur, for males (etymologically, Monsieur means "my Lord", cf. English "Sir"); pronounced [məsjø]; plural: Messieurs, pronounced [mesjø]; abbreviation: singular M.; plural: MM.. The singular form Mr is very often found, but is considered incorrect by purists, although it appears (together with its rare plural form Mrs) in some dictionaries.
- Madame, for females (etymologically, Madame means "my Lady", cf. English "Dame"); pronounced [madam]; plural: Mesdames, pronounced [medam]; abbreviation: Mme; plural: Mmes. Madame must also be used in the case where one does not know whether the addressed woman is married or not and in the case where one does not know whether the addressed woman consider the usage as discriminating or disrespectful.
- Mademoiselle, for an unmarried female (cf. English "Damsel"); pronounced [madmwazɛl] or [mamwᵊzɛl]; plural: Mesdemoiselles, pronounced [medmwazɛl] or [memwᵊzɛl]; abbreviation: Mlle or Mle; plural: Mlles or Mles. Etymologically, this means "my Damsel". This form of address is informal and is now tending to be less used in favour of "Madame" by some groups such as women's rights movements, because they consider the usage to be discriminating and disrespectful. However, one tendency that remains fairly common is the addressing of young-looking females Mademoiselle, and older females Madame. Actresses are usually always styled Mademoiselle, especially in film or theatre credits, regardless of their age or personal situation; one would thus read Mademoiselle Deneuve est habillée par Soandso.
- Mondamoiseau is an archaic term historically used for a gentleman that had not yet reached the status of chevalier, and was used in a similar fashion as the modern mademoiselle; plural: Mesdemoiseaux. The term has not been in common use since the 17th century, but it can be found in works of classic French literature, such as Molière's L'avare.
During the Ancien Régime, a laywoman was always addressed "Mademoiselle", even when married, "Madame" being reserved to women of high aristocracy, even not married. This practice ceased after the French Revolution.
A traditional address to a crowd of people is Mesdames, Messieurs or Mesdames, Mesdemoiselles, Messieurs — whose order of words represents decreasing degrees of respect. An informal variant is Messieurs-Dames; it is considered as ill-mannered by purists.
It is normally impolite to address people by their given names unless one is a family member, a friend or a close work colleague of comparable hierarchic importance. One also does not address people by their last name only unless in a work environment. Also, contrary to English or German usage, it is considered impolite to address someone as Monsieur X when talking to that person: a mere Monsieur should be used, Monsieur X being reserved for talking about M. X to another person.
When speaking of someone, Monsieur/Madame given name family name, by far the most polite form of address, is generally reserved for the most solemn occasions. Monsieur/Madame family name or given name family name is polite and used in normal formal occasions, as well as in the formal quality press (Le Monde, Le Monde Diplomatique, for example). By contrast, in colloquial usage the family names of personalities are used alone. Formally, a married or widowed woman can be called by the given name of her husband (Madame (given name of husband) family name or Madame veuve (given name of husband) family name); this is now slightly out of fashion.
In the workplace or in academic establishments, particularly in a male-dominated environment, it is quite common to refer to male employees by their family name only, but to use Madame or Mademoiselle before the names of female employees.
Military officers are addressed by their rank (not "monsieur"). Male officers of the Army and the Air Force are addressed as Mon <rank> by inferior ranks and deferential civilians. This usage is said not to be the possessive pronoun "mon", but an abbreviation of "monsieur". However, women are not referred to with "mon"; instead the rank alone is used: for example "Général" rather than "mon Général".
As a punishment by Napoléon Bonaparte, Navy officers have not been addressed as "mon" since the Battle of Trafalgar. Confusingly, the title used does not always match the rank. "Lieutenant" is the form of address for an enseigne de vaisseau, "capitaine" for a lieutenant de vaisseau and "commandant" for a capitaine de corvette, frégate or vaisseau.
In everyday written contexts, ranks are abbreviated.
French people have one, two or more given names. One of them, almost always the first, is used in daily life (but someone can also have an usage name that was not given); the others are solely for official documents, such as birth, death and marriage certificates. Thus, one always speaks of Jacques Chirac and never of Jacques René Chirac; and Henri Philippe Pétain is always referred to as Philippe Pétain (or Marshal Pétain), because Philippe was the given name that he used in daily life. Middle initials are not used. For example, although English-speaking scientific publications may cite Claude Allègre as Claude J. Allègre, this is never done in France. Typically, second and further given names may be somewhat old-fashioned, given in honour of the child's grandparents etc., though such practice has now become less common. As with English, however, a person may choose to use any one (or several) of their names, relegating the unused names to the birth certificate. Although using more than one name is nowadays out of fashion, using two or even three of the given names as a compound name was fairly common until the early 20th century.
Traditionally, most people were given names from the Roman Catholic calendar of saints. Common names of this type are Jacques (James), Jean (John), Michel (Michael), Pierre (Peter), or Jean-Baptiste (John the Baptist) for males; and Marie (Mary), Jeanne (Jane), Marguerite (Margaret), Françoise (Frances), or Élisabeth (Elizabeth) for females. In certain regions such as Brittany or Corsica, more local names (usually of local saints) are often used (in Brittany, for instance, male Corentin or female Anne; in Corsica, Dominique (suitable both for males and females). However, people from immigrant communities often choose names from their own culture. Furthermore, in recent decades it has become common to use first names of foreign origin, such as Kevin, Enzo or Anthony for males; for females, Jessica, Jennifer, Karine or Sonia. Also, females were given names that are feminine to the common French names like Jacqueline and Géraldine.
The prevalence of given names follows trends, with some names being popular in some years, and some considered definitely out-of-fashion. As an example, few children born since 1970 would bear the name Germaine, which is generally associated with the idea of an elderly lady. However, as noted above, such old-fashioned names are frequently used as second or third given names (middle names).
Almost all traditional given names are gender-specific. However, a few given names, such as Dominique (see above: completely gender-neutral), Claude (traditionally masculine) and Camille (traditionally masculine, now mostly feminine), are given to both males and females; in medieval times, a woman was often named Philippe (Philippa), now an exclusively masculine name (Philip), or a male Anne (Ann), now almost exclusively feminine (except as second or third given name, mostly in Brittany). From the middle 19th-century into the early 20th-century, Marie was a popular first name for both men or women, however, before and after this period it has been almost exclusively given to women as a first given name, even if the practice still exists to give it to males as second or third given name, especially in devout catholic families.
Compound given names, such as Jean-Luc, Jean-Paul, or Anne-Sophie are not uncommon. These are not considered to be two separate given names. The second part of a compound name may be a given name normally used by the opposite sex. However, the gender of the compound is determined by the first component. Thus, Marie-George Buffet has a given name considered as female because it begins with Marie. The feminine component in male compound names is mostly Marie, as in Jean-Marie Le Pen. In the past, some Frenchmen would have Marie or Anne as first name (example: Anne du Bourg), which is still nowadays in practice in traditional Catholic families (but then the man will have other given names and one of those will be used in everyday life). Second or third given names, which usually are kept private, may also include names normally used by the opposite gender. For instance, in 2006, 81 Frenchmen have Brigitte among their given names, 97 Catherine, 133 Anne and 204 Julie. In addition to the above-described custom of using Marie for males, this is due to the habit of traditional Catholic French families to give children the names of their godmother and godfather: if there is no counterpart of the opposite gender for the name of the godparent who is not of the same sex as the child, generally the name of the godparent will be left as such. For instance, a male child born to a traditional Catholic family choosing for him the name Nicolas and whose godparents are called Christian and Véronique could be called Nicolas Christian Marie Véronique.
First names are chosen by the child's parents. There are no legal a priori constraints on the choice of names nowadays, but this has not always been the case. The choice of given names, originally limited only by the tradition of naming children after a small number of popular saints, was restricted by law at the end of the 18th century. Officially, only names figuring on a calendar, or names of illustrious Frenchmen/women of the past, could be accepted. Much later, actually in 1966, a new law permitted a limited number of mythological, regional or foreign names, substantives (Olive, Violette), diminutives, and alternative spellings. Only in 1993 were French parents given the freedom to name their child without any constraint whatsoever. However, if the birth registrar thinks that the chosen names (alone or in association with the last name) may be detrimental to the child's interests, or to the right of other families to protect their own family name, the registrar may refer the matter to the local prosecutor, who may choose to refer the matter to the local court. The court may then refuse the chosen names. Such refusals are rare and mostly concern given names that may expose the child to mockery.
To change a given name, a request can be made before a court (juge des affaires familiales), but except in a few specific cases (such as the Gallicization of a foreign name), it is necessary to prove a legitimate interest for the change (usually that the current name is a cause of mockery).
A child's family name, until recently, was inherited from the father unless the father was unknown, in which case it was inherited from the mother. A recent law allows couples to choose which name they would use for all their children. Typically it is the father's surname, but parents may also opt to use a double-barrelled name, separated by a hyphen.
The ratio of the number of family names to the population is high in France, due to the fact that most surnames had many orthographic and dialectal variants (more than 40 for some) which were registered as separate names around 1880 when “family vital records booklets” were issued. According to the French Institute for Statistics INSEE, more than 1,300,000 surnames have been registered in the country between 1891 and 1990, and about 200,000 disappeared meanwhile (mainly orthographic variants). It is believed that the number of family names at any time since 1990 hovers between 1,200,000 and 800,000. However, not all family names are of French origin. According to different estimations, 50 to 80 percent of French citizens would be the bearers of rare family names (fewer than 50 bearers alive at the census time).
In France, until January 1, 2005, children were required by law to take the surname of their father. From this date, article 311-21 of the French Civil code permits parents to give their children either the name of their father, mother, or a hyphenation of both - although no more than two names can be hyphenated. In cases of disagreement, the father's name applies. This brought France into line with a 1978 declaration by the Council of Europe requiring member governments to take measures to adopt equality of rights in the transmission of family names, a measure that was echoed by the United Nations in 1979. Similar measures were adopted by Germany (1976), Sweden (1982), Denmark (1983) and Spain (1999).
Most common family names in France
These are the most common family names
Some French last names include the word de ("of") or du (contraction for de and le = "of the"). This is known as a particle. A particle de should not be alphabetized in name lists, whereas a particule du should be because it results from the contraction of an article. The particule generally indicates some land or feudal origin, but this is not always the case. The name de Gaulle, for example, is not a traditional French name with a particule, but a Flemish name evolved from a form of "De Walle" meaning "the wall".
A popular misconception is that a particule always indicates membership of the nobility. Almost all nobility titles are of the form <title> <particle> <name of the land>: for instance, Louis, duc d'Orléans ("Louis, duke of Orléans"), or simply Louis d'Orléans. However, many non-noble people also have particules in their names, simply because they indicate some geographic origin or property. An example from current political life is Dominique de Villepin. Former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's father had his surname legally changed from "Giscard" to "Giscard d'Estaing" in 1922, claiming the name of a family line extinct since the French Revolution.
Adding a particule was one way for people of non-noble origins to pretend they were nobles. In the 19th century wealthy laymen buying nobility titles were derisively called Monsieur de Puispeu, a pun on depuis peu meaning "since recently". Similarly, during the French Revolution, when being associated with the nobility was unfashionable and even risky, some people dropped the de from their name, or omitted the mention of their feudal titles (see image).
In some cases, names with particules are made of a normal family name and the name of an estate (or even of several estates). Thus, Dominique de Villepin is Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin; Hélie de Saint Marc is Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc (in both cases, omitting second or other given names). As in these examples, most people with such long family names shorten their name for common use by keeping only the first estate name (such as Viscount Philippe Le Jolis de Villiers de Saintignon, assuming in everyday life the name of Philippe de Villiers) or, in some cases, only the family name. Whether the family name or the estate name is used for the shortened form depends on a variety of factors: how people feel bearing a particule (people may for instance dislike the connotations of nobility that the particule entails; on the other hand, they may enjoy the impression of nobility), tradition, etc. For instance, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is never referred to as "d'Estaing", probably because his particule is a recent addition to the family surname by his father. On the contrary, he is often simply referred to in the press as Giscard.
Traditionally, the particule de is omitted when citing the name of a person without a preceding given name, title (baron, duc etc.), job description (général, colonel, etc.) or polite address (monsieur, madame, mademoiselle). Thus, one would say Monsieur de la Vieuville, but if calling him familiarly by his last name only, La Vieuville (note the initial capital letter); the same applies for Gérard de la Martinière, who would be called La Martinière. Similarly, Philippe de Villiers talks about the votes he receives as le vote Villiers. However, this usage is now losing ground to a more egalitarian treatment of surnames; it is, for instance, commonplace to hear people talking of De Villiers.
Changes of names
Contrary to popular belief, and also contrary to the practice of some other countries, French women do not legally change names when they marry. However, it is customary that they take their husband's name as a "usage name". This is not a legal obligation (as a matter of fact, it is in fact a contra legem custom, French law requiring since the Revolution that no one may be called by any other name than that written on their birth certificate) and not all women decide to do so. However, if they do, they may retain the use of this name, depending on circumstances, even after a divorce. In some cases, the wife, or even both spouses, choose to adopt a double-barreled surname made from joining the surnames of both partners. Thus, both partners' surnames coexist with whatever usage name they choose.
This distinction is important, because many official documents use the person's maiden or legal or true surname, rather than their usage name.
People may also choose to use other names in daily usage, as long as they are not impersonating others, and as long as their usage name is socially accepted. One example of this is the custom of actors or singers to use a stage name. However, identity documents and other official documents will only bear the "real name" of the person.
In some cases, people finally change their real name to their stage name; for example, the singer Patrick Bruel changed his name from Benguigui. Another example of aliases being turned into true name: during World War II, some Resistance fighters (such as Lucie Aubrac) and Jews fleeing persecution adopted aliases, and some kept the alias as a legal name after the war or added it to their name (Jacques Chaban-Delmas' name was Delmas, and Chaban was the last of his wartime aliases).
Truly changing one's last name, as opposed to adopting a usage name, is quite complex. Such changes have to be made official by a décret en Conseil d'État taken by the Prime Minister after approbation by the Council of State. Requests for such changes must be justified by some legitimate interest: for instance, changing from a foreign name difficult to pronounce in French to a simpler name, or changing from a name with unfavorable connotations.
- (French) List of common French given names at the French Wikipedia
- German name
- Dutch name
- Germanic name
- French honorifics
- (English) Rouhette, Georges (translator); Rouhette-Berton, Anne (translator) (2006-04-04). "CHAPTER II : Of Records of Birth". Civil Code. Book I: Of Persons, Title II: Of Records of Civil Status. Légifrance.
- (French) Imprimerie Nationale, Lexique des règles typographiques en usage à l'Imprimerie nationale, ISBN 2-7433-0482-0
- male INSEE stats
- Lichfield, John (January 8, 2010). "Double--hyphen surname law gets both barrels". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved September 30, 2011.
- (French) Staff. "Législation sur les prénoms (Legislation on names)". babyfrance.com (in French). Baby on Web. Retrieved 2008-07-20.
- Noms de famille: les noms de famille les plus portés, l'origine de votre nom de famille (French)
- "Liste alphabétique des prénoms" [Official list of French given names] (PDF) (in French). Prefecture of Police. Updated on October 22, 2009. Retrieved 2010-02-04. Link not found 15th December 2011
- More French Baby names
- French female names