A French Family's Old Documents
Changing Names to Assimilate...and Back Again

Changes In the Laws On Names in France

1930s mother and baby

Not long ago, the name police in France loosened by just the tiniest bit their restrictive hold. In 2005, a law was passed allowing parents, whether married or no, to choose the surname of their child. There are limitations, bien sûr. This is not the Sixties; there will be no Monsieur Gloire de Paradis, no Madame Salampeacepaix, more's the pity. The surname may be only one of the following:

  • the surname of the father
  • the surname of the mother
  • the two surnames together, hyphenated, in either possible order

There are further rules:

  • Once chosen, the surname may not be changed;
  • Whatever surname is given to the first child must be given to the subsequent children of the same two parents.

We like that the law also allows the parents to choose not to choose, in which case the Officier d'état civil will give the child either:

  • the father's surname, if both parents recognise the child at the time of his or her birth registration, or
  • the surname of the one parent who does recognise the child, if that be the case.

This, too, cannot be changed, once the name is registered. As to recognition, if the parents be not married, the father must formally recognise the child to establish legal paternity.

  School words

The terminology of names is also changing with the times:

  • As of this year the use of Mademoiselle to indicate that a woman is unmarried will no longer be permitted on government forms. There will be only Madame to indicate a female as there is only Monsieur to indicate a male. (In spoken use, the terms Mademoiselle and Madame are used more as flattery or insult, indicating a woman's apparent age, something rather more difficult to legislate away.)
  • As of 2003, a surname is no longer to be termed a patronym (patronyme) but a family name (nom de famille).
  • Since at least the sixteenth century in most cases and since the beginning of the nineteenth century throughout France, women have retained their birth names after marriage on all legal documents. It is a custom but neither a requirement nor the law for a married woman to use her husband's surname. It IS the law that in all legal and administrative documentation, e.g. civil registrations and legal documents, her birth name be used. Because of this, in France, tracing female ancestors after their marriages has always been relatively simple. 

These changes to what surnames may be given a child will make research in the future somewhat more complicated. Genealogists will have to know and search under both parents' surnames, which will become more difficult with each generation, as hyphenation extends and parts of names are kept or dropped.

We are indebted to Annie Lecornec's article in La France Généalogique, no. 256, for some of the information given above.

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy