Why is it that Frenchmen all seem to have these double names: Jean-Louis, Jean-Jacques, Jean-Claude, Jean-Francois, Pierre-Marie, and more. Likewise on the distaff side, we have Marie-Claude, Marie-Therese, Marie-Antoinette, Marie-Paul, Anne-Marie, and more. Why all the hyphenated names? Why the dually gendered names? Aren’t there enough simple names to go around? Mystère.
Well, it turns out that until very recently there simply were not that many names to go around to meet the needs of 50 million Frenchmen (to use Cole Porter’s statistics).
This story begins at the time of the French Revolution. The Revolution brought forth many things – the metric system, the military draft and the citizen army, the Marseillaise, … . There was also the end of slavery in the French colonies (until undone under Napoleon) and there was a new calendar. This calendar set the Year I to begin during our 1790; it divided the year into twelve parts, corresponding more or less to the signs of the Zodiac. These replaced the standard Roman months (6 pagan gods and rituals, 2 dictators and 4 numbers) with seasonal names; thus Aries became Germinal (when seeds sprout) and Libra became Brumaire (when the fog rolls in). The system lasted until the 11th of Nivôse (Capricorn, when snow falls) of the Year XIII (1802).
In France, the day 18 Brumaire has a sinister ring (much like the Ides of March); it is, in fact, a synonym for coup d’ėtat because this is day on which Napoleon (in the Year VIII) staged the military coup that ended the Revolution and led to the ill fated empire. It is in his essay The 18 Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that Karl Marx quotably says history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
During the period when Napoleon was the Consul but not yet Emperor the legislative body in France was the Consulat. This body succeeded the Directoire which itself followed the Convention (and la Terreur) which replaced the Assemblėe Nationale of the short-lived Constitutional Monarchy which ended the absolute monarchy of the Ancien Rėgime. The Consulat, apparently to put a stop to the new practice of using first names for children that were inspired by the Revolution itself, enacted the Law of the 11th of Germinal of the Year XI: henceforth only a name from a religious or other official calendar or a name from ancient history could be used. The registrar (officier de l’ėtat civil) could refuse any name he or she considered unacceptable.
So for Catholic France, this meant that only the names of saints who had a feast day on the liturgical calendar were acceptable. All this was inconsistent with the aggressive anti-clericalism of the Revolution but very consistent with the traditionally top-heavy structure of French governance.
In 1800, the population of France was about 30 million and growing; in contrast the U.S. population was only about 5 million though growing at faster rate. Even with a smaller population than France until about 1880, throughout the 19th century Protestant Americans used names from the Hebrew Bible (Abraham, Ahab, Rebecca, Rachel) to supplement the supply of Anglo-Norman names (William, Alice, …) and Anglo-Saxon names (Edward, Maud, …). This elegant solution was not available to the French.
While the Revolution swept across France, there were areas of resistance to it, among them Brittany. This region was always independent in spirit – what with its own Celtic language and music and very traditional Catholicism. The royalist Chouans fought a bloody civil war against the Revolution, protesting military conscription, the secularization of the clergy and, doubtless, the new calendar. All this is recounted in Balzac’s novel Les Chouans as well as in historical romances, movies and TV shows. In the present day, in the world of fashion there is the stylish chapeau chouan, inspired by the impressive clickable big-brimmed hats the Chouans wore. By the way, Balzac, a Taurus, was born on the 1st of Prairial in the year VII at the very end of the Eighteenth Century.
Despite coups d’ėtat, more revolutions, the disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, the Paris Commune, the Pyrrhic victory of WWI and the ignominy of WWII, that law going back to the Revolution stayed in effect.
So even after WWII, for a child to “exist” in the eyes of the French government and to benefit from schooling, the national health service, etc., his or her name still had to be acceptable to that local official according to the Law of the 11th of Germinal of the Year XI. However, trouble was brewing; the Goareng family in Brittany had twelve children and gave them all old Breton names; but only six of these were acceptable to the French registrars; so in the eyes of the government, six of these twelve children did not exist. In the tradition of the Chouans, the family took on the centralized French state and fought back through the French courts and United Nations courts and finally won satisfaction at the European Court in the Hague in 1964. Following that, the French government agreed in 1966 to extend the list of acceptable first names to include traditional regional names (Breton names, Basque names, Alsatian names, … ).
This satisfied the Goareng family but the struggle had so weakened the position of the French government that the law was modified again in the year CLXXXII (1981); finally the dam broke in the year CXCIV (1993) when this whole business was ended. In the time since, many once unacceptable names have been registered. By way of example, Nolan is now a popular boy’s name and Jade is a top girl’s name.