French May Get a Choice in Babies' Names

ByLucrezia Cuen

L O N D O N, Feb. 9, 2001 -- Imagine, you've just given birth to your first daughter, and you want to name her after your beloved mother Rhea. But your husband's last name is Peer.

Or perhaps you have a son and you want to name him Paul after his grandfather, but you fell in love with and married a guy named Barer. You see the problem.

Well in France, a woman has no choice in the matter of her child's surname. By law, all babies must carry their father's last name, unless the child is illegitimate and the father makes no claim.

A French mother has only one choice — choose another first name for her child. Now, that may be about to change.

A Baby Step Forward

In what is being heralded as "a baby step" toward female equality, French lawmakers have passed a bill that would allow a newborn to bear the surname of either the father or the mother.

France is one of the few countries in Europe to require babies to carry their father's name. In 1994 the European Court of Human Rights ruled the practice was discriminatory, a ruling the French have up to now ignored.

Unfortunately, this change of heart does not appear to be based on a desire to promote female equality, but rather on a concern about the loss of paternal names when there are no sons to pass them on.

"The current law, which privileges the masculine line, still leads to an important loss of patrimony," said Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu.

Safeguarding old French names, or national heritage, is the issue. Under this new law, a venerable family name name can live again when a grandson takes his mother's maiden name.

Oedipus Complex?

Despite the issues of equality and national heritage, there is still serious opposition to the measure.

"The sponsors of this bill obviously have an unresolved Oedipal complex," said Jacques Myard, a deputy of the right-wing Rally for France party.

The bill would relegates fathers "to the role of distant genitors, synonymous with a one-night stand," he said.

Other opponents argue that while maternity is by nature visible, paternity is established by the name.

Rules on First Names

Battles over children's names are nothing new in France. Although French parents are free to pick their children's first names, local officials can challenge the names after the filing of the birth certificate.

The reason behind this stems from the French Revolution, which first gavecomplete freedom in naming. The result was some very fanciful given names, such as Mort aux Aristocrates, Racine de la Liberté, or even Café Billard.

To stop this, a law was passed in 1803 that restricted given names to "names of persons known from ancient history" — read important Frenchmen and women — or "names used in various calendars," — read Roman Catholic calendar, with its roster of saints, or the revolutionary calendar.

Although the bill to allow mother's surnames has passed in France's National Assembly, it still has to clear the Senate before becoming law.

If it does, the Marguerites and Bernadettes and Maries of France who long to name their eldest daughter after their mother, Bette, will no longer be forced to reject the proposals of a man named Noire.

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