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The rules you need to follow when naming your child in France

Linguistic battles between the French government and Breton authorities over baby name choices are practically 'de rigeur'. But what are the rules you actually need to follow in France when naming your child?

The rules you need to follow when naming your child in France
Photo: AFP
This week the French government banned a couple in Brittany from naming their child Derc'hen because it contained an apostrophe.
The case echoed that of another baby from Brittany, Fañch, whose name was banned by a French court last year because it contained a tilde, an “n” with a small sideways “s” above it – ñ.
In both cases, the Breton authorities defended the families and called the banning of Derc'hen an “intolerable linguistic discrimination”.
But why aren't the French allowed to give their children a Breton name? 
Here are the rules for naming your baby in France. 

France bars Breton baby name over an apostrophe

The first name must be written in French
In July 2014 a circular was sent around by the government saying that first names must be in French, referring to a 1794 law which ruled that French is the only language of the administration. 
This text was quoted by the court of Quimper in Brittany to ban the name “Fañch” in September. 
More specifically, that means that “only the Roman alphabet can be used and that the only accepted accents are the dots, umlauts (¨), accents and cedillas belonging to the vowels and consonants authorized by the French language”.
So that means goodbye to the tilde and the apostrophe.
The first name must not go against the interest of the child
Since 1993, France hasn't had a list of authorised French names. That was abolished by President Francois Mitterrand and so parents can choose foreign names (as long as there are no accents) as well as shortenings of names.
Parents may also “make use of a non-traditional spelling” as long as they abide by the first rule. 
But they must not bestow a name on a child which is “contrary to the best interests of the child”, according to Article 57 of the Civil Code. 
If the rule is not followed, the public prosecutor immediately and they can call on a family judge to have the name removed from the civil registry.
This is the rule that put a stop to names such as Titeuf, Nutella, Strawberry, Zigzag and Joyeaux (Happy).
On top of that, a child with the last name of one parents cannot have the other parent's name as a first name. 
But some say that despite these two rules there's an inconsistency when it comes to upholding the law. 
Fabrice Cadou, a member of the Skoazell Vreizh association (“Secours Breton” and Breton Rescue in English) . which supports the families of little Fañch and Derc'hen, denounces the “hypocrisy of the administration”. 
“The name Derc'hen has already been validated umpteen times by civil status before the circular was passed around. Other names like Goulc'han, Melc'han or Berc'hed exist and have been validated in Rennes. Just like West African-sounding first names using the n '… How is it that in some municipal services, this circular of 2014 is not applied?” he told 20 Minutes.
This could be down to public prosecutors being stricter in certain regions. 
But for the moment, if you're living in France you might want to think twice before taking on the French authorities with an unusual baby name. 

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For members


Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.