Fighting for Breton Baby Names in France

Mireille and Jean-Jacques Manrot-le Goarnic of Brittany had a dozen children in the 1950s and early 1960s. They gave all of these children Breton (Celtic) names.

The names of the first six (Garlonn, Patrig, Katell, Gwenn, Yann and Morgann) were accepted by the French government.

The names of the last six (Adraboran, Maiwenn, Gwendal, Diwezha, Sklerijenn and Brann) were not.

These last six, therefore, did not officially exist under French law, as their births were never registered. Because they were nonpersons, they could not legally drive a car, vote, marry, enlist, or claim state health benefits.

Why weren’t their names accepted?

Because a law written in the early 19th century restricted French baby names to the names of Catholic saints and “persons known in ancient history.”

According to Jean-Jacques, though, the specific reason was “racism, pure and simple.”

These children have no rights. They are nonentities. They have been refused admission to schools. They have been bullied and ridiculed. It’s terrible. All we want is a human solution and no one in any official capacity seems to be interested.

The family’s plight was widely reported.

In 1966, TIME reported that “Papa Goarnic” had been fighting to register the names for years, but had “lost every round.”

[This was the year that the 1803 law was replaced by “a statute that in theory allows the French to call their children just about anything that doesn’t offend good taste. But the law was not retroactive,” unfortunately.]

In the mid-1970s, The New York Times mentioned that le Goarnic had attempted to take his case to the International Court of Justice at the Hague, on the grounds “that France [was] violating the 1532 treaty between Duchess Anne and Francis I.”

[Actually, it was an Edict, not a Treaty, and Anne had been dead nearly 20 years by 1532.]

The situation even inspired poetry–some humorous, some serious. “Open Letter to the Le Goarnics” (1963) by Charles Maitland Fair ran in The New Yorker; “Maçon Murant Merveille” (1966) was penned by Breton nationalist Alain Guel.

In 1976, France finally relented and gave full rights to the six Manrot-le Goarnic children.

By this time, the oldest was 19 and the youngest was 12.

[Reminds me of the families currently fighting to use Berber names in Morocco…]

Sources:

  • “6 Children Get Rights” Waycross Journal-Herald 14 Jan. 1976: P-24.
  • “French refuse legal status to Celtic name.” Leader-Post [Regina, SK] 13 Jan. 1975: 23.
  • Lewis, Flora. “France’s Bretons, in Quest for Nationalist Goals, Rediscover Their Heritage.” New York Times 14 Jun. 1975: 8.
  • “Norman Court Names Girl Mikelaig, Ruling Out Parents’ Choice.” New York Times 4 Dec. 1966: 168.
  • World: Qu’y a-t-il dans un nom?Time Magazine 7 Jan. 1966.

3 thoughts on “Fighting for Breton Baby Names in France

  1. This is one of those situations that make my libertarian streak appear. They aren’t naming their children infamous names or ridiculous names. I have a hard time swallowing laws like that.

  2. Nancy, I love these little name stories that you somehow find. Of the six names not approved, I especially like Maiwenn and Gwendal and thought they both sounded like girls’ names. I checked them out on two French language baby names websites. Both names came up: according to one website, both are used for boys as well as girls, but the other website had Maiwenn as a female name and Gwendal as a male name.

    Prénom Genre Sens et Origine Fête
    Maïwenn F contraction de Mari et Gwenn (breton). 15 août

    About 5,000 French women bear this name, although it is rarely used for babies now.

    Prénom Genre Sens et Origine Fête
    Gwendal M blanc, heureux, paiement (breton). 18 janvier

    Gwendal too is said to be the name of about 5000 French people and also is rarely given today.

    What a shame that these siblings had to wait years to have their names — and thus their births — registered.

  3. @Bridgett – I feel the same way. What gets me is the blatant ethnic discrimination. I wonder how many Breton families (before this one) were forced to change their babies’ names because they were unwilling/unable to fight the French government.

    @Patricia – Thanks for the definitions!

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