A brief history of restrictive French naming laws in France

Let’s take a look at the curious French naming laws throughout France’s history. From only being able to use Christian names to current laws that ban certain names in France.

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
French baby name law: Banned baby names
French baby name law: Banned baby names

French first names and their popularity in France have evolved over centuries. They’ve been influenced by various cultures, including Latin, Germanic, Greek, Hebrew, and Celtic.

Children born in France rarely have unusual, weird or made-up French names because the French government has had a long history of restricting what French parents can name their children to ensure its citizens comply with social traditions (of the period).

It’s been that way since 1803 when Napoleon enacted a law that prohibited most names except for Christian names. 

This is one of the many reasons why French names tend to be more classic or traditional than the names Americans choose, where you can name your child anything from “Moon Unit” and “Pilot Inspektor” to “Reign” or “Rocket Zot”. Yes, these are real names.

Don’t worry though, French naming laws have evolved since 1803 but there are still limits. 

Here’s a look at France’s strict naming customs and laws throughout France’s history. 

RELATED: 31 Illegal and banned names in France:

Why do most countries have Baby-naming laws

Strange French laws in France

Most countries have a baby naming law that prevents parents from legally giving their children controversial, embarrassing or offensive names like Adolph Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, both of which are forbidden in Germany and a few other countries. 

But baby name laws are not consistent, meaning they differ from country to country. 

Some countries do not allow their citizens to give newborns non-traditional names, foreign names, blasphemous names, or names relating to royalty. 

For example, Australia, Sweden and a few other countries don’t allow names that resemble official ranks, royal titles or religious titles such as King, Queen, Master, Duke, God, Lord or Saint.

A good thing Kim Kardashian and Kanye west live in the US because they would never have been able to name their second child Saint if they were from Australia or Sweden. 

 In Iceland, the official Icelandic Naming Committee has a list of seemingly normal names, such as Abigail and Adriana, on the list of rejected names.

And while the Arabic name Amir may be popular in many Middle Eastern countries, it’s now banned in Saudi Arabia because it’s a royal title that means Prince in Arabic. 

1803- 1966: Christian and Catholic Saints naming period 

Napoleon Bonaparte: Baby name law

From 1803 to 1966 (163 years), parents in France were legally required to choose a baby name from a list of acceptable French first names, thanks to a law enacted in 1803 by Napoleon Bonapart called the “11 Germinal, An XI.”

Napoleon’s baby naming law stated that parents could only use the names of Christian Saints based on the Roman Catholic calendar and names of persons known from ancient history.

This is one of the reasons why so many people in France used to have similar names, such as Jean, Marie, Paul, and Josephine.

Sometimes, non-Christian names slipped under the radar, but they were few and far between. 

If you didn’t give your child a traditional French name approved by the French state, your child’s name was not accepted, and they became a non-person with no identity. You couldn’t legally vote, apply for benefits or drive a car, 

1966: Foreign names became legally accepted for newborns in France

The fact that French parents could only name their children after Christian Saints and well-known persons from ancient history also meant that parents could  NOT give their children foreign names such as Kevin or regional French names. 

This posed a problem for many French people living in regions with a high concentration of ethnic groups such as the people of Brittany in Northern France, who are a Celtic ethnic group. 

The 1803 baby naming restriction meant that parents could not give their children traditional Breton (Celtic) first names. 

The people of Brittany are a former independent kingdom that later became part of France. Brittany preserved their unique Celtic culture and Breton language, which is closely related to Welshand Cornish. 

The Brittany couple who changed the restrictive baby naming laws of 1803

Between 1946 and 1963, Mireille and Jean-Jacques Manrot-le Goarnic, a French couple from Brittany, had 12 children.

All 12 children have traditional Breton (Celtic) names. However, the French registrar’s office in Bretton only accepted the first six children’s Celtic names (Garlonn, Patrig, Katell, Gwenn, Yann and Morgann.) Their names probably slipped through the cracks. 

However, the town clerk never accepted the couple’s last six children’s Celtic names (Adraboran, Maïwenn, Gwendal, Diwezha, Sklerijenn and Brann) on the grounds that they were foreign names, not French names. 

Because their names were illegal in France, the six Breton children could not apply for passports and had no civil status or legal existence in France and no social rights or family allowances for their parents.

Mireille and Jean-Jacques Manrot-le Goarnic found Napoleon’s 1803 baby naming law restrictive and racist, so they brought a case before the UN and the European Court in Hague. The case made international headlines and created a diplomatic incident. 

Eventually, the six younger children were issued unique identity cards with the status of “European citizens of Breton nationality.”

The 1966 baby naming law allows regional, foreign, diminutive, and mythical names.

Thanks to Mr and Mrs le Goarnic, Napoleon’s 1803 name law was repealed, and a new law was put in place in 1966. It ended 163 years of Catholic saint names and names of persons known in ancient history.

Parents could finally give their children regional names from all over France, not just Brittany.

Parents could also give their children diminutive names or nicknames such as Anna, short for Annabelle, or Theo, short for Théodore. This was a big deal. Some European countries still don’t allow this. Take Portugal; if you want to name your child Tom, you can’t. You have to call your child Tomás.

Foreign names were also fair game in France beginning in 1966.

Many parents took advantage of the new law, and France saw new names it had never seen before; Ringo, Fatima, Jade, and Kevin were suddenly perfectly legal baby names in France.

Arabic names such as Mohammad began making the top 100 list of newborn names in France for the first time in the 1960s and 1970s.

There was also a strange boom of baby boys born with the foreign name Kevin in the 1990s thanks to the main character in the movie”Home Alone” which is called “Mommy I missed the plane in French (Mamanj’ai raté l’avion.)

Mythological names

And lastly, the new 1966 baby name law meant parents could also use names inspired by mythology, such as Hermione, the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite.

1993 baby name law: French parents have carte blanche to use more creative names.

Paris is a boys name in France

In 1993, the law changed once again when French President François Mitterrand introduced “Loi n° 93-22.”

Finally, parents had the freedom to be a little more creative in their baby naming choices as long as the name given was “in the best interest of the child and not detrimental to the rights of other families or third parties.”

It was open season for baby names.

Some parents took advantage of the more lax baby naming rules and began giving their children never-before-seen names that would have been banned before 1993.

For instance, from 2004 to 2020, 81 parents named their sons Paris. The name “Zoey” also appeared for the first time in France in 2010.  

Summing up names banned in France

Although French citizens can name their children whatever they want now, you still won’t find many French names that are too Avant-garde or crazy because the French government can step in and stop you, thanks to Article 57 of the Civil Code. 

so technically, you’re name could be on the list of names banned in France.

For instance, a French family was banned from naming their baby girl born in 2017 “Liam” because it sounds too much like a boy’s name.

If you’re interested in seeing actual names in France that parents tried to give their children in France, but were banned from doing so, you should read 31 Illegal and banned names in France.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.


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