France’s Baby Names: a Reflection of the Political Climate?

When you think of a typical French name you probably think of “Pierre” or maybe “Marie”, but two recent studies suggest the truth might be far more culturally diverse.

“The number of girls named Marie has gone from 20% in 1990 to less than 1% last year. It’s the same process with male names like Jean,” writes Jérôme Fourquet in L’Archipel Français. Meanwhile, 18% of baby names in France now have “Muslim origins”, with the name Mohammed entering the top 20 baby names for boys in France for the first time in 2018.

In a country that bans the collection of ethnic and religious census data, baby names can offer unique insight into French society and be a touchy political subject. Far right politician Marine Le Pen famously criticised former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his French-Italian wife Carla Bruni for giving their daughter the name Giulia, spelled the Italian way. She’s also called for naturalised French citizens give up their birth names and take on names “adapted to the national culture” meaning the names on the Catholic saints calendar defined as French by Napoleon in 1803.

Fourquet claims that the plummet in little Maries and Jeans being born shows Catholicism in France, or as Le Pen calls it “national culture”, is in its “terminal stages.”

In fact, Catholic French names have been in decline since the early 90s, when French parents were given the right to name their children whatever they wanted. (With some exceptions: “Nutella” was recently blocked by local courts.) Rather than Arab-Muslim names, it was Americanised names, such Cindy and overwhelmingly Kevin, that quickly became popular, a trend some credit to the popularity of the main character Kevin McCallister in the Home Alone films.

Nehla Le Puil, a Sri Lankan French citizen, and her French husband have two sons born at either end of the ’90s. One’s called Kevin, the other Dylan. “We wanted names that sounded the same in French and English,” she said. And they liked “the sounds, the number of syllables, and that they’re Celtic” in keeping with the family’s Breton last name.

In the present day, baby names specialist and co-author of French baby name bible L’officiel de prénoms, Stéphanie Rapoport, says global influence on baby name trends in France is still high. What she calls “chameleon names” are currently popular.

“They are short, multicultural names such as Mila which has diverse etymologies, Inés that’s Spanish and Arabic, and Adam, which is from the Old Testament but it’s also multicultural because it’s used in the three monotheisms. It’s the globalisation of names”.

Parents today, the Erasmus generation, think it’s nice to have a name that can travel so when their children go abroad they can cross borders easily

The sweeping popularity of these short, international sounding names could also be a sign that France is not the “divided society” it may appear. Even if it’s not in a way traditionalists might approve of.

A second recent study by French researchers, Baptiste Coulmont and Patrick Simon, suggests that while 95% of first-generation North African immigrants give their children a typical Arab-Muslim name, such as Mohammed, only 23% of second-generation immigrants do.

Second generation immigrants Arab-Muslim are much more likely to use short, non-culturally specific, ‘chameleon’ names.

“For a girl to be named Lina, Mila, or Inès, or a boy to be named Adam, Liam, or Ethan – all top-20 first names in France in 2017 – is a sign that their parents have adopted dominant tastes. But those first names were virtually non-existent in France before 2000 and can hardly be considered ‘typically French’.”

In fact, they tie in with global trends for short, culturally ambiguous names. In 2018, Emma was the most popular girl’s name in the US and the second most popular in France. In the same year, Liam was the most popular boy’s name in the US, and the eighth most popular in France.

“There are lots of Liam’s now,” says Lara Khanafer, a French second-generation immigrant, about her son’s name. “I didn’t know when I chose it that it was so popular.”

She laughs. “I think it’s because of one of the guys in One Direction. When I gave Liam his name his father’s niece, who was 13, was like ‘oh my god, this is so cool! Just like the singer!'”

Lara’s mum found the name in a baby book, and Lara and Liam’s father liked it because it was short, simple and “I wanted something that wouldn’t put him in a box. I wanted a name that would allow him to be free to do what he wants and be who he wants to be. I love my family and they have Arabic names, so they don’t have bad connotations for me. But in the society that we’re in right now, they don’t ring the right bell. They raise questions.”

She pauses. ““But actually. You see Barack Obama? His middle name is Barack Hussein. And he became the president. So in the end, does it really matter?”