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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: It is illegal to name a pig Napoleon

This is one of those 'bizarre facts' about France that gets trotted out a lot . . .

French history myths: It is illegal to name a pig Napoleon
You are free to name your pet pig whatever you like in France, although calling it 'rashers' is a little insensitive. Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP

Myth: It is (or was at one time) illegal to name a pig Napoleon in France, because this constitutes an insult to the country’s former ruler.

This fact features in a lot of articles about ‘weird France’ or ‘bizarre laws’, but anyone who has ever tried to research it has found no evidence of either a law that could reasonably be construed as this, or anyone ever being prosecuted for naming their pig Napoleon.

Records of what people named their pigs are a little sketchy, so we don’t know whether anyone in fact ever did this, but there is one very famous example from literature – George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

In the French edition of the 1945 novel, Napoleon the pig is named . . . Napoléon. 

There is no record of Orwell or his publishers encountering any problems in France because of this. 

It’s hard to say exactly why this has become such an enduring trope, but it is true that France until relatively recently had laws in place to prevent rulers being ‘insulted’.

The law from 1881 (passed after the death of both Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew Napoleon III) made it an offence punishable by either jail or a fine to be rude about the French president (and only the president, insulting other politicians was always fine).

During Charles de Gaulle’s tenure six people were convicted of the offence, but it was last used in 2013 when a protester was fined €30 for holding up a banner to then-president Nicolas Sarkozy reading casse-toi pauvre con (get lost, asshole).

The law was finally scrapped later in 2013 after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the protester’s freedom of expression had been violated.

Yellow vest protesters use their freedom of expression to declare ‘Macron you are worse than a pig’
Photo by JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP

It is now entirely legal to insult the president (and many thousands of people have taken advantage of this freedom during Emmanuel Macron’s tenure) although the president has the same levels of protection as anyone else against defamation or invasion of privacy.

Even when the law was in place it referred only to the current head of state, not past rulers, and it remains unclear whether simply naming a pig would count as an ‘insult’. 

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.

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