French is a beautiful old language, but for years, their names for people were very limited. Why? It was the law.
As it was explained in The Monroe (Louisiana) News-Star in 1966:
Heretofore, people in France have been restricted, in naming their children, chiefly to “those names appearing in the various calendars,” described as “mainly saints’ names” and “those of personalities known in history.”
No wonder it seemed that so many of the Frenchmen were named Jean or Pierre.
Now, however, the French government has ruled that children can be named after figures from Greek and Roman mythology, and also that the parents can give them such common names as James, Ivan or Manfred.
But still barred are “first names of pure fantasy, words representing objects, animals or qualities and names recalling political events.”
Fortunately, those rules were eased in the mid-1990s, and now, citizens of France can pick from a wide variety of French baby names — or names that are Irish or Arabic or Japanese — or any kind they like… almost.
It’s not exactly a free-for-all. As of 2019, the French government’s Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques (INSEE) site explained it this way (as translated):
In particular since 1993, the registrar can no longer refuse the first name chosen by the parents. He may, however, notify the public prosecutor if he considers that the first name is detrimental to the child’s interest (example: ridiculous or rude name); or that the name disregards the right of a third party to have his family name protected (for example: a parent cannot choose as a first name the surname of another person whose use would constitute a usurpation). The public prosecutor can then refer the matter to the family court judge, who can request the deletion of the first name from the civil registry.
Here’s a look at some of the most popular French baby names, past and present.