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Why nicknames are a bad idea in France

Filling in your name on a French form needs to be done carefully.
Filling in your name on a French form needs to be done carefully. Photo: Charly Tribballaut/AFP
For all official purposes, your name is obviously a pretty crucial bit of information, but be very careful in France if you usually go by a diminutive - it can create all sorts of problems with officialdom.

Which names?

We’re not talking about the kind of nicknames your mates give you – The Beast, Eggsy, Hutch – but about shortened versions of your prénom (first name or Christian name).

Bill, Kate, Ben, Ted, Liz – many anglophone first names are commonly shortened for everyday use rather than using the full William, Catherine, Benjamin (or Benedict), Edward or Elizabeth.

This happens in France too of course – Emmanuel becomes Manu, Nico for Nicolas or Fab for Fabien or Fabrice – but with one crucial difference; these shortened names don’t make it onto any kind of official document.

Official documents

In France the full name that you were born with is the only one used on official documents such as your birth certificate, passport, driving licence or, more recently, your Covid vaccination certificate.

This applies to surnames – and we have written before of the problems this can cause married women who have changed their names on official documents, as is usual in countries including the UK, USA or Australia.

READ ALSO Why a woman’s maiden name is such a big deal in France

But it also applies to first names.

In the anglophone world if you are always known as Liz rather than Elizabeth, it’s not uncommon to have Liz on your driving licence, for example. But if your birth certificate says Elizabeth this may cause you problems with French officialdom, who will deem that you are trying to present official documents with different names on them.

While you might think the connection between Ben and Benjamin is pretty obvious, some English-language diminutives (eg Ted to Edward) are certainly confusing, but it’s more the problem that this name shortening on official documents simply does not happen in France.

We have received several emails from readers who have encountered problems travelling when their Covid vaccination certificates were issued using the shortened version of their names, while their passport shows the full name.

The Local’s Europe editor Benedict (Ben to his friends) McPartland has also encountered this problem when trying to change his driving licence to a French one.

Everyday name

On official forms it’s important to fill in the ‘name’ section correctly, even though it may seem obvious.

Your prénom is your full first name (as it appears on your birth certificate) and your nom is your surname.

Your nom de naissance or nom de famille is the surname that you were born with, so for married women this may be different to your nom.

READ ALSO What’s in a name: How to fill in French forms

Forms also have a box for nom d’usage – the name you are commonly known by where you can indicate your married surname.

Full name

But get used to filling out your full legal name on all French paperwork, even if being addressed as William makes you feel like you are five years old and in trouble with your parents.

What to do if you use a nickname?

So what happens if you have documents showing different names?

In France, your birth certificate is the key document, so other documents needs to match what is on there.

If they don’t match, then expect to have to supply extra paperwork.

Marriage certificate – if you have changed your name on official documents by reason of marriage, then usually supplying a marriage certificate (or divorce paperwork if the name change has gone the other way) will suffice.

Declaration of honour – if it’s a question of a shortened nickname, however, you may need to provide extra paperwork to prove that Kate and Catherine are the same person. It’s best to create a complete dossier of anything official that uses your shortened name – tax paperwork, employment contracts, utility bills – and you will also need to provide a declaration sur l’honneur where you make a sworn statement that the two names refer to the same person.

Vaccination certificates – this issue has arisen recently due to Covid vaccination certificates needed for travel. If you were vaccinated in France then the certificate will be issued in your full legal name, but this may not match your passport.

If that’s the case, the Health Ministry says that vaccine providers can now correct a name on the vaccination certificate. Anywhere that provides vaccinations (pharmacy, GP or vaccine centre) should have the capability to do this, but again take as many official papers as you can find with you. Because this is a relatively new addition, you may find some providers are unsure of the rules, so you may need to shop around to find a centre that will do this.


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