Each year thousands of French people ask to change their surname or first name or choose a pseudonym. It may be a question of pride or identity, but it is never a small thing for those who call themselves something new. Here are some of their stories.
PARIS — It's not always easy to bear the name of Mister Labitte (literally "The Dick" in French), "especially when you're a child," said one man interviewed in 1985 on French television. But it molded his personality:
"When I arrived in the army, I told them 'my name is Labitte. I'll give you a total of eight days to have fun, but after that, it will be over.' On the ninth day, a show-off found it funny to keep up with the jokes. Well, he went on a little stay in the infirmary."
According to the website Forebears, around 650 people in the world bear the name of Labitte.
Nearly 4,300 requests for a change of name were registered by the state Civil Status registry in France in 2020 (2,900 in 2019 and 2,500 in 2017) and 1,800 were rejected. This can be an official change or in the form of a pseudonym, as was the case with many "celebrities": French singer Patrick Bruel, French actress Sophie Marceau and even Marilyn Monroe — these stage nicknames sounded more glamorous than Benguigui, Maupu or Mortenson.
Nicknames aren't neutral
Thus, the famous French singer Claude Lucien Moine sings his boogie rock, before the evening prayer, under the much more American-sounding name Eddy Mitchell. Meanwhile, the singer Katy Perry chose this name to stand out from the actress Kate Hudson. Other celebrities use a pseudonym to be incognito, such as the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, a.k.a Josep Pwag on his Brazilian passport. In the 1980s, businessman Donald Trump sometimes spoke in the media under the cover of John Barron. Social media platforms have since facilitated the proliferation of nicknames and responded to the fantasy of many: "To invent alter egos, create a new side of ourselves. People need to dream," says Céline Masson, a psychologist and psychoanalyst.
Vincy changed his surname for convenience: With three consonants in a row, his first surname (which he did not wish to reveal) was often misspelled, causing administrative issues. It was his American employer who urged him to take a "pronounceable" name: "Thomas," a nod to the day of his birth. Moreover, during birth registration, his first names were not recorded in the right order: Initially, his name should have been Cyril and not Vincent, which was supposed to be his middle name. In high school, Vincent merged his first and middle names into Vincy, a way of fixing the original inversion. One oddity remains, however: French health services did not provide a "Vincy" box in its names database! Thus, on his social security card, "Vincent" is the first name and "Vincy Thomas" is in the last name box… It is not always easy.
A meaningful process
French cartoonist Julien Berjeaut, alias Jul, has also sought a practical nickname. But the approach is actually deeper than that: "When you're a press cartoonist, the signature must be compact. We are also looking for a name that slaps, one that will lead to 'fame.' Then we pay attention to its calligraphic beauty."
As in the case of Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali at 22 when he converted to Islam, or the singer Cat Stevens, whose real name was Steven Demetre Georgiou and later became Yusuf Islam as he interrupted his brilliant career, baptism can mark the passage to a new self.
Abel, 44, says he changed his first name around the age of 13 "to assert my personality, to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood." Born Antoine, he chose his third name "because I found it original and beautiful. It also allowed me to keep my initials and the choice of my parents." But the way to impose it was more radical: Overnight, he would only answer to Abel. Only his parents are still allowed to call him by his original name: "They never got used to it. But today, I'm happy because I feel like I haven't changed my identity. Deep down, I remain Antoine. If someone says this name in the street, I turn around, even though my name is Abel 90% of the time."
It would be great if everyone could choose their first name at some point in their life.
Our name is ingrained in all of us. Hence, when the metamorphosis is too brutal and forced, it may be traumatic, "especially when the change occurs during adolescence," says Céline Masson, author of Habiter son nom: une histoire française (Inhabiting One's Name: a French Story). Jewish children suffered when their parents Frenchified their Hebrew-sounding names after the trauma of the Holocaust. This made the names easier to pronounce and also provided a shield from anti-Semitism. It wasn't until 2012 that the French state allowed them to reclaim their real names.
Even those who rename themselves of their own volition don't always transition smoothly: More than 20 years after having cut ties with her father, Noémie decided not to get rid of her father's name, but to add the one of her mother to her ID: "It's a long inner journey. But I do not yet feel neither the patience nor the determination to remove my father's name. I may replace it with the name of a future husband while keeping my mother's family name. I like the idea of a hyphen, without losing the family name that I chose."
The appropriation stage
Sevan, 23, has been experimenting with this new name for a few months, "but I am not sure yet whether it suits me 100%. I must feel good about it."
One of the criteria is that their sister likes it. Above all, it has to be gender-neutral, as Sevan has doubts about their gender, which prompted them to change their first name. First, they cut it before abandoning it completely. But Sevan doesn't see the new moniker as a break from their previous identity: "It's more of a continuity. Just because I have a different first name doesn't mean I changed."
"My being goes beyond my first name," says Océan. When he decided to become a man, he simply cut off the final "e" from his birth name. "It allows me to keep my story and it's also a first name that evokes great freedom."
Océan says that when he started his hormonal transition, changing his name quickly took hold and helped him assert his masculinity. He abandoned his second female first names, which were those of his grandmothers, as it would have been an obstacle to what he calls his "move of reappropriating myself." He says that some transgender people keep the name they were assigned at birth, as a snub to prejudices on names that carry a gender or a social background: "It would be great if everyone could choose their first name at some point in their life. Don't take anything for granted, especially when it comes to yourself."
Today, the first name remains fairly permanent in France, "whereas in many countries, the tie is not as strong: For instance, the child is given, out of family respect, the grandmother's first name, but we call them differently on a daily basis," says Baptiste Coulmont, a professor of sociology at the Ecole normale supérieure Paris-Saclay. Hélène, a Frenchwoman, had a similar experience: She grew up in Greece where little girls are nicknamed Koukla ("little doll").
"I have always been called Koukla and I have always introduced myself as such," says Hélène, who had to change her identity documents, notably to be able to vote in the United Kingdom where she lives. She had to put together a file with evidence that people called her Koukla in everyday life.
"My children signed certificates saying that 'we know mum under the name of Koukla,'" she laughs. Her request, submitted in January 2019, took ten months to complete. Since 2017, it is no longer necessary to systematically go before a judge and pay a lawyer to change your first name. Before that date, around 2,700 people changed their first names in France each year. Since it became free, Baptiste Coulmont estimates there are three to four times more that make the change.
The first name only became permanent in France during the 19th century
As many men as women
"In France, changing a first name is often tied with a migration story," says Coulmont. In the early 2010s, eight in 10 of those who changed their first names had a parent who was born abroad. However, not all of them did so for social discrimination reasons. For example, one asks to be called Antoine because Antonio was the choice of his father who left home. Another takes a French-sounding first name to get closer to his children Louise and Augustin. As for the left-behind and chosen first names, if we classify them as "French" (let's say "Camille") and "foreign" (let's take "Sabrina"), a quarter of people go from Camille to Camille, a quarter from Sabrina to Sabrina, a quarter from Camille to Sabrina and a last quarter from Sabrina to Camille. Generally, there are as many men as women and they often take a younger first name, "without necessarily being aware of it, except for women who had a first name ending in 'ette.'"
The motives for name change vary from one culture to another.
Civil status ensures that the first name chosen by the parents is neither ridiculous nor already that of a famous person. Nutella, Fraise, Titeuf or Asterix were also denied. However, it depends a bit on the goodwill of the registrar officer, says Alyosha, who had to take a provisional first name the year she was born until the town hall would accept her first name, which was initially deemed "too much." It was considered "exotic," that of a Dostoyevsky character, in fact. Alyosha says, "When I was young people made fun of me, but today I like my name: It's so unique. It's a bit like me! "
"The first name only became permanent in France during the 19th century when the idea of a common culture in the nation-state was formed," says Baptiste Coulmont. Before, people changed their first name when they went from a region to another, translating it into Breton, Alsatian. The motives for name change also vary from one culture to another.
Often, a French person will change their first name to fit into a community," says Coulmont "Whereas a Chinese citizen will do it because another one bears the same [name], which is considered a problem."
He says that not all countries make a hierarchical difference between the name and the first name either, as in France, where the state gives an immutable aspect to the name, used to fix the identity of the subjects over time in order to better control them.
The bureaucratic hurdles
In France, there is a whole procedure to change a name and some cases take up to six years to complete. It starts by paying 110 euros to publish a request in the Official Journal in order to allow a third party to oppose this change of name if it threatens their own. The second step is to send a file to the French Civil Affairs Department, which will assess the request legitimacy: differentiates from a famous namesake with a bad reputation, prevents the extinction of a name that has been in use in the family for a long time, bears the same name as relatives. However, asking to add a posh or prestigious-sounding name to climb the social hierarchy is not considered a valid reason.
The right name has to be suggested. The Ministry of Justice's website advises translating it literally ("Dos Santos" becomes "Dessaint") or transposing it phonetically into the adopted language: as the journalist Darius Rochebin, who Gallicized his Iranian name Khoshbin at age 20, or the French grandfather of actor Marlon Brando, who Americanized his name "Brandeau" when he immigrated to the United States. At Ellis Island, Georges Perec tells the story of an old Russian Jew who must choose "a very American name that the civil status authorities would have no trouble transcribing."
"He asked for advice from a luggage room employee who suggested the name of Rockefeller. The old Jew repeated Rockefeller several times in a row to make sure he wouldn't forget it. But when, several hours later, the Civil State officer asked him for his name, he had forgotten it and replied in Yiddish: 'Schon vergessen' ('I have already forgotten'). And so it is how he was registered under the American name of 'John Ferguson.'"
But an official name change doesn't mark the end of bureaucratic headaches. Sometimes Abel's bank refuses a check payable to his new first name and some pay slips also make the mistake. He says, "I wonder if this will be a problem when I retire…"
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