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Eye on France: What's in a name?

Close up and personal: the pundit Eric Zemmour.
Close up and personal: the pundit Eric Zemmour. AFP/Joël Saget

Tell me your name and I’ll tell you who you are. Or at least, where you come from. Or where your parents came from. Or at least your grand-parents. It's complicated!


The French National Institute for Demographic Studies has just published the results of research into the first names chosen for their children by immigrant parents. Covering three generations, the report throws up a few surprises.

Take North Africa for example.

Today’s kids have names like Yanis, Nicolas, Medhi, Sarah, Inès and Lina... those are the six most popular names among members of today’s French population of North African background, as we politely say.

Their grand-parents were called Farid, Ahmed, Rachid, Fatima and Khadija.

Despite certain well-worn prejudices, the number of Abdelkaders and Karims in today’s third generation is very small. As the report’s authors say, contemporary name choices reflect both a specific cultural heritage and the dominant norms in France.

The authors, who are called, incidentally, Baptiste and Patrick, have based their savant analysis on a sample of 22,000 people.

They can thus tell us, with a high degree of statistical confidence, that “the convergence between the majority population and the descendants of immigrants is not achieved through the choice of ‘French’ names, but by means of international names with which everyone can identify.”

That, in other words, explains why we have so many Milas, Lounas, Yanises, Liams, Ethans and Adams . . . all six in last year’s Top 20 but which were practically unheard of in the year 2000.

Remember the boy named Sue?

In 1945, there were 2,000 first names in use in France; today we’re well past the 13,000 mark.

The descendants of the post-war immigrants from southern Europe were not called Maria, José or Antonio. Like the children of those who had arrived from Asia, they rapidly adopted the naming norms of the native population.

But the North Africans, the Turks and those from south of the Sahara took, on average, an extra generation to get into the swing of the name game.

So that Baptiste and Patrick are in a position to assure us that “only 23 percent of children of the third generation carry an Arabic-Muslim first name”. Is that a good thing? The boys don’t have an opinion, except in so far as they suggest that parents of North African background purposely choose “international” names which will pass unnoticed. Which is a fairly grim commentary on what those parents must make of the norms and openness of the dominant population.

The situation has led to what Baptiste and Patrick call “cultural innovation”. So the Arab name Rayan (with two As) becomes Ryan (with just one).

Innovation or domination?

According to the commentator Hakim El Karoui, this is a good sign. The evolution of individual names and/or the adoption of culturally neutral ones is a sign of social integration.

Our mate Baptiste is less sure. He says the change has nothing to do with individual choice and is, in fact, the result of the steam-roller pressure exerted by the dominant culture.

Nonetheless, 19 percent of the boys born in France in 2016 were given Arabo-Muslim names, a sign for the rabble-rouser Eric Zemmour that the community from which they emerge has no desire for real integration. Zemmour, incidentally, told Hapsatou Sy, a fellow guest on a TV show last year, that the name Hapsatou “was an insult to France”.

The name Mohamed is a special case: religiously serious parents dominate among those who choose this name for a son. But not exclusively. There is also the desire to re-affirm a cultural or community identity.

This is to be seen in the choice of traditional Corsican first names by families with a background on the Mediterranean island, for example, and in the use of biblical names by some Jewish and Catholic families.

The popularity of “Marie” is in sharp decline, for example, but “Sixtine” is all the rage.

Speaking personally, “Michael” was an archangel, the main man on the side of the good in the war in heaven against Satan. I couldn’t find anything significant on “Amanda”. But I was delighted to learn that, in Kabyle, the word “zemmour” means “olive”.

How do you like them olives, Eric?

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