• U.S.

World: Qu’y a-t-il dans un nom?

3 minute read

“What do you wish to name your daughter?” asked the city hall clerk. “Gaullette,” proudly replied the French father. “Impossible!” cried the fonctionnaire. “That is not a name but a profession of political faith. Pick another.”

The uproar in Strasbourg exemplified a problem that has plagued French parents since 1803, when the Napoleon government decreed that all Gaul’s children must be named after Catholic saints. In 1813, the law was liberalized to include names of other “persons known in ancient history,” but it has stood unchanged since, and today, though Charles de Gaulle exhorts his countrymen to “marry our century,” French offspring may be christened Luc, Cléopâtre or Nabuchodonosor but not Lyndon, Elke or Nasution.

The government has yet to issue a list of permissible first names. Thus hardly a week passes without some irate couple’s suing to force registration of an appellation. Last spring an employee of the French atomic-energy commission won the right to name his daughter Marjorie, but only after an appeals court in Grenoble ruled that Marjorie was an ancient French nickname for Marguerite—explaining that it is found in England only because it was exported there from France in 1194. A father in Normandy wanted to call his daughter Kelig, which he claimed was a perfectly good Breton name. Not so, ruled the Ministry of Justice, which imposed on her the correct Breton feminine diminutive of Michel—Mikelaig.

Frenchmen whose names have not been accepted are legal nonpersons, cannot marry, vote or receive welfare payments. In the eyes of French law, six of the twelve children of Mireille and Jean-Jacques Manrot-le Goarnic do not exist—because their parents gave them the Breton names of Adraboran, Brann, Diwezha, Gwendall, Maiwenn and Sklerijenn. Papa Goarnic has fought the case for five years, carrying it even to the World Court, but has lost every round.

This month, however, Judge Robert Sévenier, the Fifth Republic’s chief arbiter on the subject, will instruct town clerks to consider family history and local usage in weighing names. Judge Sévenier defends the name game as necessary to protect infants against “inconceivable and often absurd names.” Sévenier himself winces at the father in Savoie whose surname was Cocu—Cuckold, and who named his son Parfait—Perfect. The Republic could do nothing: Parfait was a saint who has been revered in France since 850 A.D.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com