What’s in a Name? The Nagging Issue of Foreign First Names in France


“What’s in a name?” This rhetorical question, taken from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, has been always been used to signify that somebody’s name isn’t all that important as a determining factor in one’s value or usefulness as a human being. Of course, there has been no shortage cases in different countries of some names being judged to be so far out that the authorities responsible for registering would not accept them for fear that they may subject the child holding the name to scorn or ridicule. Striking examples of such cases include naming a girl Mégane Renault in France being refused because the Renault car company already had a car on the market called the Renault Mégane, and a Turkish couple being barred from naming their son Osama Bin Laden in Germany. Other than these two headline grabbers, names like Nutella, Strawberry and Metallica have also run afoul of name approving authorities.

In France it appears that the question “what’s in a name” is, for many, not rhetorical. Their answer to the question is that a name contains national identity and that in order to be identified by the rest of the national community as French, one should have a French name. So in this case it’s not a matter of a name being too outlandish or downright funny that rules it out, but rather the fact that it originates outside of France’s borders.

When applying for French citizenship foreigners have the option of converting a part of their name – or the whole thing – to a French equivalent. The surreal form to be filled out explains that an applicant may change their first name or take a French first name and relegate their current first name to being their middle name; want to ditch Hamza for Henry, Pedro for Pierre or Abdul for Alain? Then it’s just the procedure for you….

This aspect of applying for French citizenship is just a gentle or friendly suggestion, and alongside that there is no requirement for babies to all be named Pierre or Marie. However, some want it to be mandatory for children of foreign origin to be given a French name at birth. Cue everyone’s least favourite talking head and Mr. Burns lookalike, the socio-political wet blanket they call Eric Zemmour – or Eric Justin Léon Zemmour, in case you were even had the slightest interest in doubting his credentials as a French person. Why, EJLZ couldn’t be any more French if he had red wine for blood and had Napoléon’s cryogenically preserved heart transplanted into him. He waves the flag of Frenchness 24/7, and makes sure we all know about it.

Zemmour’s view is that giving a child a non-French name is tantamount to excluding the child from the national community. A French name is a marker of belonging within French society. His particular bête noire is Muslim / Arabic names. He favours a return applying an early 19th century naming law that was on the books until the early 90s which stated that “only names used in calendars and those carried by well-known figures of ancient history shall be approved, and public officers may not accept any others”. Since Zemmour – who says many of the French yearn for a return to the past because they no longer recognise the current French society as theirs because it is swamped by foreign and in particular Muslim external elements – recommended a return to this law, a number of observers have pointed out that the wording of the law does not actually contain the word “French” or “Christian” name in it, and that including the names of great figures of history would inevitably push the door wide open to many a non-French name being seen legitimate.

EJLZ is far from being the only one in this country to have a name hang-up; this is after all the country where, for a few years at least, anonymous CVs, were all the rage as the solution to employment discrimination, before being done away with. The solution was not to deal with French employers’ xenophobia, but to make everyone conform to their narrow view of French society. Similarly, I suppose women should also be instructed how not to appeal to men by being so womanly, so as to avoid being cat called. I am not French and have personally had the experience of seeing staff at the immigration office’s eyes light up upon seeing my very French name. It is as if they feel like they should more polite to me than to someone with some odd foreign name. I’ve even had them ask me if I was sure I was not French and call a colleague over to gush over how wonderfully French and acceptable my name was.

Earlier this year, a report surfaced from one French media house making a correlation between a person’s name and their high school diploma results. They spent 3 years compiling resukts of the baccalauréat exams, and shortlisting the post common names among those with stellar performances. The names at the top of the heap were ones like Louise, Apolline, Théophile, Joséphine and Diane. Bringing up the rear were names like Dylan, Bryan, Steven – 3 English-language imports – and the Arabic name Sofiane. It looks like people with these names not fully blending into French society also shows up in their test scores. Perhaps If they had French names probelems of education inequality would magically work themselves out? My experience in teaching in the French secondary school system tends to reflect the findings of this report in that the schools with the better reputations and performance levels were filled with Pierre-Alexandres, Dianes, Mathieus and just the odd Salim, whereas the schools on the lower end of the reputation and academic performance spectrum had their share of Abdels, Brandons, Emilios, Salmas, Jordans and Kaders, with just the odd Adrien or Florian popping up here and there.

So, notwithstanding the fact that a recent Wikileaks revelation showed that Democrat Party officials in the US made fun of they deemed to be the comical name of an African American woman they were working with on a project, it’s 2016 and in the US the president’s name is Barack and the former Secretary of State’s name is Condoleeza, while across the Atlantic the mayor of London is called Sadiq, but had they been in France they may have been expected to be called Bertrand, Stéphane and Caroline respectively. 1998 World Cup winning footballer Bixente Lizarazu had his Basque name registered as it’s French translation ‘Vincent”, even though the Basque people’s presence in what is now France predates France itself. One realises now what a feat it was that there were one a Fadela, a Ramatoulaye and a Rachida as government ministers in France. Maybe France will go the way of Saudi Arabia and publish a list of banned names. The identity version of the race to the bottom is on. On another note, what misfortune I have to share a name with EJL Zemmour.



  1. Just a precision, Justin: if Dylans, Kevins and Brandons seem to do less well than other children it is not because France is anti-British or Anti-American. It is because those names are very popular with working-class people because they are supposed to be “exotic”. It’s as if the most deprived people in Trinidad were very fond of German names…


    1. Yeah, in Pauillac there were quite a few Brandons, Jordans and Staceys. Not very academically inclined in most cases and from working class homes 100% of the time. I cringed at times when I heard the names because I knew what I would be in for with them.


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