Currently Reading

Change a Surname, Lose a Legacy by Hélène de Lauzun

6 minute read

Read Previous

Germany’s Double-Pivot: €100 Billion in Defense and ‘Lethal’ Military Aid by Tristan Vanheuckelom

Carnival Gothic: A Look at the Ominous Figures of Europe’s Winter Masquerades by Carlos Perona Calvete

Read Next

Commentary

Change a Surname, Lose a Legacy

The French National Assembly has just passed a major reform concerning the use of family names. The bill that was adopted on first reading, then rejected in the Senate, provides that from 1 July 2022 it will be possible for a French citizen to change his or her surname upon reaching the age of majority. It was adopted by 69 votes in favour on Thursday, February 24th. This text—presented as a progressive step forward by the government majority—is the last to have been voted on before the parliamentary recess, in view of the presidential elections. 

The Minister of Justice welcomed the vote for a “magnificent” law, synonymous with “simplification, freedom, and equality.” 

The law intends to take into account all the complex situations that families may face today, whether they be divorces, single-parent families, or serious situations such as incest or crime committed in the family, that could prompt a person to want to change one’s surname.

A change of surname is now possible, once in a lifetime, through an extremely simplified procedure: a simple declaration at the city hall is sufficient. The procedure that existed until now was long and complex. It required a file to be submitted to the Ministry of Justice, and a name change was only possible in a few limited cases set by law: a pejorative-sounding surname, a desire to Frenchify one’s name, or to prevent the extinction of a rare surname. 

While the process has now been simplified, the new law does not allow just any name to be taken: the name can only be changed to the name of the other parent.

The bill was justified by a whole series of generous considerations: how can one deny a name change to a child damaged by a painful divorce or incest? During the parliamentary debates, the French press was keen to put forward dramatic stories to justify the law. A young woman explained in the columns of the newspaper Le Monde that she was traumatized by having to bear the name of her “genitor,” whom she had never met and who had been guilty of sexual and physical violence against her mother, who had raised her alone. The strategy used to frame the bill, that of highlighting extremely rare and moving stories like cases of rape or violence followed by pregnancy—also used by the defenders of abortion—is meant to qualify name changing as something obvious that will preserve personal dignity, the morally responsible thing to do in such situations. 

The new law is also intended to make life easier for parents whose children do not bear their last names, as in the case of blended families. Women, often after a divorce, find themselves obliged to use the family record book to prove their maternal relationship for school, administrative, or medical purposes, because their child did not bear their name. In the case of multiple fathers, a mother could find herself with several children all bearing different names, and different from her own. This new law will empower the parent to change the name of a child who has not yet reached majority, without the inconvenience of having any other authority figure involved in the decision.

Is this a sign of progress or liberation? The perverse effects of such a law are numerous and profound. 

The most apparent result of this law is that it further undermines the notion of the patriarchal family lineage symbolised by the patronymic. Although today it is commonly looked at as a tool of male oppression, the patronymic is primarily a symbol of continuity and transmission. With this new law, the idea of transmission of a symbolic heritage, that of the name, leaves the realm of designation to become the object of a choice subject to personal convenience. The Republican MP Marc Le Fur has thus denounced an “à la carte civil status.” As a result of this law, it may become common in the future for a grandfather, a son, and a grandson to have three different names, if the son has chosen to take his mother’s name and the grandson does the same. It is not certain that our society, in search of stability and drowning in ever more shifting identities, will gain much. It will lose its bearings, once again. 

In 2005, a previous law was passed in France to allow parents to choose the name they pass on to their child (father, mother, or both together). The choice made for the first child was to apply automatically to other children in a sibling group. The 2022 law further increases the number of possible situations. If Mr. Durand and Mrs. Dupont have a son, he can be called Durand, Dupond, or Durand-Dupont. But he can change his name when he comes of age, and choose to be called Durand, or Dupond, as the case may be, to recover the name he was not given at birth. And if in the meantime, Mr. Durand Senior has also chosen to change his name to that of his mother, Mrs. Martin, what will happen to Mr. Durand (or Dupont) Junior? Will he be able to choose between Dupont, Durand, and Martin?

In the case of blended families, the mother’s life will be simplified because her children will all bear her name. The law thus replaces the symbolic ‘domination’ of the father with the ‘domination’ of the mother. How is one better than the other, if not for ideological reasons of hatred of patriarchy? In ancient Rome, the right of life and death over the offspring belonged to the pater familias. Today, with the trivialisation of abortion, the mother now has the right of life and death over her child. The denounced tyranny of the father has been replaced by the omnipotence of the mother. This is merely a shift, but not progress. 

The same applies to the question of the name. The supporters of the law explain that thanks to it, a sibling within a blended family situation will be unified because all the children will be able to bear the mother’s name. But since the prospect of changing names arises when the children reach the age of majority, brothers and sisters may again find themselves bearing different names, and not only because of marriage, which does not, moreover, erase the name of birth. Endless headaches are to be expected for registrars … or for genealogists in a few years.

The law was passed without any prior impact study. 

For the moment, it is very difficult to know how families will react. The child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Caroline Eliacheff, interviewed by the newspaper La Croix, believes that the flexibility introduced by the proposed law could generate new difficulties, and also fail to meet expectations. She sees in this law the current tendency to build general public policies on the basis of individual demands. In the process, the family unit is hit by new blows, to the benefit of an individualistic egoism, which is by definition transitory and incapable of lasting. 

Surnames were born in France during the Middle Ages. They are the reflection of a history, of original destinies. They sometimes bear the mark of a profession, a region, a home, a character trait. By subjecting the question of names to “choice,” the new law will considerably weaken this formidable heritage. Certain names, judged to be incorrect or unattractive, or foolishly meaningless in modern times, will end up simply being erased from the registers. With them will disappear an entire intangible heritage that is the embodiment of our living history. In a few years family trees are likely to resemble piles of chopped logs.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

Tags:

Leave a Reply