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Reader question: Why is a married woman’s maiden name such a big deal in France?

Reader question: Why is a married woman's maiden name such a big deal in France?
What's in a name - why your birth name matters in France
You may think you know your own name, but French bureaucracy often thinks differently, as anyone who has filled in an official document will be all too aware.

Recently, numerous women contacted The Local to point out their Covid-19 vaccination certificate – giving proof that they are fully protected against the virus – showed their birth name, rather than their married one, concerned that it could affect travel plans in the immediate future, as their passports were under a different name.

Official advice, then, was to go back to where the vaccine certificate was issued and try to get it changed – or, at least, carry documentation (such as a marriage certificate) proving you are who these conflicting documents say you are.

We have not heard of anyone having problems travelling from France to another country using Covid certificates with different names.

The EU has reportedly instructed France to ensure that EU Covid certificates for foreign nationals living in France match passports or ID cards to ensure cross-border travel is as easy as possible. Whether this instruction reaches officials handing out the documents is another question altogether.

But why do French authorities set such store by a birth name, insisting it appears on all official documents?

While it is common for women from nations including including Ireland, Australia, the UK and the USA, to change their name on passports and driving licences when they get married, in France these documents remain in the name you were born with.

Upon marrying, a woman in France gains the right to use her spouse’s surname, but it never becomes her actual name. So while Monsieur Dupont’s wife may be known as Madame Dupont, her passport, driving licence and all other official documents remain in the name she was born with.

Instead Madame Dupont becomes her nom d’usage (more on that below).

For all administrative dealings, she will still be identified by her birth name, because – legally speaking – public servants are not allowed to call a citizen by any other name than the one shown on their birth certificate.

This is Revolutionary thinking. A law (the loi du 6 fructidor an II, if you really want to know) from August 1794 states that “no citizen can use a first name or surname other than that written on their birth certificate”.

As a direct result of this law, it is common in France for maiden names to appear on official documents. For foreign nationals living in France, who may need to change their driving licence, for example, or get a carte de séjour, both names can appear on the document.

READ ALSO: Eight online services which make dealing with French bureaucracy easier

So, when you’re filling out a form, you may be asked for your nom, prénom, nom de naissance, nom de famille, nom de jeune fille, nom d’usage, or nom marital.

Nom – this means your family name/surname. On formal letters you will often be addressed with your family name first, usually in capitals – SMITH John.

Prénom – this is your first name. If you have middle names you can add those, too, but it’s not compulsory unless the form specifically asks for all your names

Nom de naissance – this is the family name you were born with. Anyone who has changed their name is required to tell French authorities what name they were born with (unless you have obtained a new birth certificate, for example through adoption).

Nom de famille – the surname on your birth certificate. Nom de patronymique is an archaic and little-used alternative.

Nom de jeune fille – for women only, this is your maiden name.

Nom d’usage – this is the name you use. It’s particularly aimed at women, some of whom change their surname when they get married and some of whom don’t.

Nom marital – married name. For use if you change your name when you get married. In France it’s up to you whether to change your name for day-to-day matters. 

Your name on official documents does not change, but you can – obviously – change your nom marital, or nom d’usage by taking your partner’s name, or creating a hyphenate double-barrelled name.

If you want this to be the name that you are addressed by, indicate this in the nom d’usage box on forms, and letters will be addressed to you using that name. 

Your official family name for documents, however, remains the name on your birth certificate.

Ultimately, if you find yourself having to deal with the French authorities and needing to verify your name, you should always take along your birth certificate as well (showing your maiden name), as this is the only document that will be recognised by the administration. Your marriage certificate, too, is likely to be useful, if you used your married name in earlier dealings.

Note – this insistence on birth names doesn’t only affect married women. While in Anglophone countries it’s common to have a passport or driving licence that shows a shortened version of your first name if that is what you usually go by (eg Kate instead of Catherine, Ben instead of Benjamin, Will instead of William) in France, your official documents must match the name on your birth certificate.


Member comments

  1. Yes, this has been a nightmare for me! In my case it’s not a problem of having a maiden and married name, it’s that my name changed when I was little when my mother remarried. The French just can’t wrap their head around that fact since children in France will always keep their father’s name. Contacted Ameli to ask for my certificate to be changed into the name I use now (obviously it was issued in a name I haven’t used since I was 5) but they said no! Going to see what happens when travelling back to the UK next week…

  2. I have a problem, because I kept my maiden name after marriage. Instead of being Madame ‘maiden surname’ I am Madame ‘my husband’s surname’. It has caused a lot of confusion and many problems and I have had to prove being married with a certificate many times. Additional problem is that we do not have an official marriage certificate in our country that I could have with me. I have to ask for an extra certificate from the authorities stating my marital status.

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