French naming conventions are pretty strict and family names are an essential part of a French person’s official identity. This is very different from naming conventions in the United States where you can pick (almost) any name.
French naming rules
French people can have several first names and one family name (possibly a compound name).
Birth names are part of family inheritance in France and they are passed down to the following generation.
Did you know?
The most common French last name is Martin.
French family names
In France, a person’s birth name, also called family name, is used as a legal name. It is the one and only name on French official documents. As a direct consequence, French married women keep their unmarried name on their official documents all their life.
Americans who get a French driver’s license will be surprised to see that it’s under their last name at birth. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t been using their birth name for the past 30 years.
nom de famille (family name) = nom de naissance (birth name)
For Americans relocating to France, it’s important that the last name on your official documents match exactly the name on your birth certificate. If your last name at birth doesn’t appear on your passport, you’ll have to show an official document with the 2 names on it (marriage certificate for instance). Read How to order a U.S. birth certificate online when you need one.
French last names
In France, people can use a usual name (nom d’usage). Nom d’usage is the last name you want people to address you by. It’s the equivalent of an American last name except that you can’t pick any name you want as nom d’usage. You must chose between:
- spouse’s last name at birth. This works for both married men and women.
- your last name at birth concatenated to your spouse’s family name.
- one of your parent’s family name
PACSed couples can’t use their partner’s family name as their last name.
Noms d’usage don’t replace family names on official documents but they show as usage next to the family name. Here’s a picture of my French passport.
On French vital records such as birth or marriage certificates, only the family name is ever mentioned.
nom d’usage = last name
After a divorce, you cannot keep your ex’s last name unless you have an agreement from your ex-spouse or a decision from a judge to keep his/her name as nom d’usage. This agreement can be temporary (until your children reach 18 for instance).
The agreement to keep your ex-spouse’s name doesn’t hold if you remarry as you then lose any right to your ex’s family name.
How to declare a nom d’usage
You indicate a nom d’usage when you apply for a French document. When applying for a French passport or ID, nom d’usage is called deuxième nom on the form.
Your nom d’usage does’t affect your children’s last name.
Children’s last name
In most U.S. states, parents can name their newborn any last name they want. French naming conventions are way more strict. You cannot pick any last name you want for a child born in France. The first child of a couple inherits his last name from his/her:
- both parent’s name combined, separated by a space
The siblings of the first child will get the same family name as the first child.
Before January 2005, a French child was automatically getting his father’s name as a family name. Nom de famille was then called nom patronymique, from the latin word pater which means father.
Last name change
Since July 2022, French people over 18 can easily change their last name to one of their parent’s last name or a combination of both of their parent’s names. This is the latest law aimed at facilitating adding a mother’s name to a child’s last name (or replacing the father’s name).
A French person can only make that change once in a lifetime.
French need a legitimate reason for changing their last name to a name other than one of their parents in France. They can apply for a name change by official decree at their local city hall (mairie) but the process is not fast nor simple.
Naming a child in France
Since 1993, French parents don’t have to pick a first name (prénom) from an official list. Parents can now be creative but the first name they chose has to be validated by a registration officer (un officier d’état civil) at the birth’s registration.
To be approved, a newborn’s first name must not go against the child’s best interest, such as being ridiculous or vulgar. It can’t be the last name of a famous person or the last name of the other parent, when the baby’s last name is the one from one of the parents.
Junior as first name suffix
There is no junior name suffix in France.
Nowadays, it’s pretty rare for a baby to get the same name as its parent in France. There is no such thing as naming a child with a Jr. suffix or a II suffix. To distinguish between 2 persons of a same family with the exact same name, you can say Jean Martin père (senior) and Jean Martin fils (junior). Those are not name suffixes though but simply a way to distinctively refer to people.
French first name spelling
There are strict rules regarding French first name spelling.
Unlike in the United States, you cannot capitalize a letter in the middle of a first name, like in LeBron. Only the first letter is a capital letter. A combined first name (un prénom composé) has one capitalized letter at the beginning of each name, like in Jean-Jacques.
French first names can only contains letters from the French dictionary. The only authorized diacritics are:
à â ä é è ê ë ï î ô ö ù û ü ÿ ç
Apostrophes are allowed in French first names since 2018.
French can have multiple first names. The second one is the equivalent of the American middle name. French can use any of the first names on their birth certificate, not necessarily the first one.
French names gender
When living in the U.S. I noticed that many first names were used for boys and girls interchangeably. For instance, I was surprised to see the first name Dylan used for a girl.
In France, there are not many gender-neutral names that have the exact same spelling for males and females. Here’s a couple of French androgynous first names.
Most of the time, there’s a male and a female version of a French first name and they don’t sound the same.
- Charles – Charlotte
- Luc – Lucie
- Bernard – Bernadette
- Fernand – Fernande
- Adrien – Adrienne
- Noé – Noémie
Some male and female first names are pronounced the same but they’re spelled differently. Here are a few French homophone first names:
- Paul – Paule
- André – Andrée
- Maël – Maëlle
- Michel – Michelle
- Emmanuel – Emmanuelle
- Gabriel – Gabrielle
There are also French first names that are either exclusively for boys or exclusively for girls.
Places as first names
Place names are not common in France and I haven’t met any London or Paris in France yet.
Compound first names
Compound first names are still pretty common in France even though they tend to become less trendy. Here’s a few classic ones.
French compound names need to be hyphenated or else they’re considered as separate first names.
Short first name trend
These past years, I noticed a trend for short names. Here’s a list of some popular French first names.
Liam, Milo, Elio, Mael, Mila, Noé, Tom, Léo, Mia
If you’re looking for baby names, you can get some inspiration from this complete list of French first names since 1900 from Insee.
When applying for French citizenship, you have the option to Frenchify your first and last names. Pick a French name in the official list of first names that you can chose from:
If you have children who are minors with the same last name as yours, their last name changes as well in the Frenchification process.
French last names plural form
Proper nouns don’t take an “s” at the plural form in French.
Est-ce que les Martin viennent ce soir ?Are the Martins coming tonight?
I hope you enjoyed reading about French naming conventions. Why don’t you head to French accent names and punctuation marks to learn about French accent marks.