By Your Name


Notes from Paris

In her monthly column Notes from Paris, Madeleine Schwartz records some unexpected aspects of everyday life in France.

Photo: Madeleine Schwartz

Not long after I moved to Paris from the United States, in 2020, I began to hear reports of women disappearing. It happened at the bank, at the doctor’s office, when they were picking their children up from school. They were there and, suddenly, they’d been erased.

In France, women who marry do not legally relinquish their maiden names, as many do in the United States, but they may choose to add a husband’s surname as a second nom d’usage. The trouble is that even someone with no intention of taking her husband’s name can have it imposed on her. She might be living her life normally one day, and then, after registering a marriage, find herself cut off from her previous civic persona.

I heard these stories from friends and acquaintances, women in tense divorce negotiations unable to travel with their children, or access their medical records, all because of seemingly minor problems with their paperwork. To me, a half-American, half-French person who has spent most of my life in New York City, something about these incidents sounded alien. They reinforced a feeling I have often had since arriving in Paris, where much of my family lives: as if I’ve opened the door to a long-abandoned room, where everything looks jumbled, and looks all the stranger for my expectation that I’ll find it familiar. I couldn’t be sure whether the fact that so many women were confiding such stories was a sign of their ubiquity, or reflected something about me. Perhaps people chose to tell me in particular, considering me just fluent enough to understand and just foreign enough to be sympathetic. Curious and alarmed, I decided to start collecting these accounts, in the hope that approaching them as a reporter might help me understand them, and France, a little better.

Sure enough, I found that these seemingly bizarre experiences were rather common. One woman wrote to me about what happened when she notified the national health service, the Sécurité sociale, that she was married: “A few days later, they sent me a new card, even though I didn’t ask for one, with my husband’s name on it. I refused, I explained that I had kept my name, but they didn’t want to know. They told me that I would have to take my husband’s name.” The woman who handled her complaint said, “If we could choose, it would be too easy.”

When Anne Pruvost, who lives just south of Paris, arrived at the hospital to give birth, her water had broken and the fetus appeared to be in distress. The staff couldn’t find her medical records, which her doctors needed to ensure that Pruvost, who is epileptic, would not have a seizure. The records turned out to have been filed under her husband’s name, which she does not use. Pruvost, who is trained as an attorney, told the hospital that her right not to have her husband’s name forced on her had been enshrined in law since the seventies. “Madame, this is a serious establishment!” a member of the staff responded. “We don’t just joke around here.”

These restrictive and outdated practices can cause a host of problems, according to the lawyers I’ve spoken with. While some women have a name that’s not theirs foisted on them without their consent, the lawyer Sophie Soubiran told me, others may be stripped of their married name after divorce, if an ex-husband decides to revoke their right to use “his” name. The problems are especially acute for women with children. Pruvost told me that she had given her children both her own and her husband’s last names, yet often found them listed in official documents with only the latter, which led to complications with the administrative system that runs family welfare. People sometimes accuse her of having the wrong ID herself because she doesn’t share a name with her husband. She is now accustomed to carrying additional paperwork with her at all times, in case she needs to prove that her children are in fact hers.

Some of the consequences of all this are simply bureaucratic nuisances. Life in France often feels like one long bureaucratic nuisance. Others, however, entail grave threats to the personal safety of women and their children. Charlotte (here I’ll mention that many of the women I spoke to for this column did not want me to use their last names if I quoted them, citing the possible reaction of an ex) had an order of protection against the father of her twin daughters. When the girls were eleven months old, he beat her so badly that she ended up in the hospital. After their separation, the court ordered that Charlotte and her ex (who had visitation rights) hand off the children in the presence of a police officer. Their father used these occasions to exert whatever power he could. He withheld the girls’ passports for months, acting warmly toward the police all the while. When Charlotte finally retrieved the passports and tried to take her daughters on a holiday abroad, an airport official, seeing their names, said he would have to call the father for permission to travel. He relented only when the girls began to cry.

The issue of her children’s last names plagues Charlotte. Just recently, she was called into her daughters’ school. She had enrolled them under her ex’s last name and her own, but her ex had systematically crossed hers off their papers. What angers Charlotte the most is that her ex will soon marry, and his new wife may take his name, in which case she would be able to take the children anywhere, no questions asked—even though he does not have custody.

Photo: Madeleine Schwartz

Living here, I’m constantly reminded of how much France provides for women that the United States does not: a functional, if creaky, welfare system; guaranteed childcare and maternity leave. The buildings themselves call for “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”—you can’t walk more than a few blocks in Paris without seeing the slogan emblazoned on some government institution or other. Close-up, however, the picture looks very different. Though statistics only say so much, I’ll note that in this year’s Global Gender Gap Report put out by the World Economic Forum, France is tied for first place with twenty-five other countries with regard to women’s educational achievement. Yet you have to scan to number 58 to find the country listed in the category “Economic Participation and Opportunity,” and to number 115 when it comes to the wage gap.

Ophélie Latil, whose feminist advocacy organization Georgette Sand fights for the visibility of women in the public sphere, recently launched a petition against the erasure of women’s identities in financial and administrative documents. She notes that women have only been able to give their last name to their children since 2005. In 2013, Christiane Taubira, then François Hollande’s minister of justice, tried to pass a law that would give a newborn child the last names of both parents, as is done in Spain and Portugal. When the bill failed to pass, the government said that a double last name would automatically be put in place for the child of any couple in a disagreement. This workaround is an acknowledgement of the problem, as Marine Gatineau Dupré, a founder of the organization Porte Mon Nom (Bear My Name), points out. But it is not a solution. In order for this supposedly automatic process to begin, a parent must file a declaration of disagreement at the mayor’s office. How many pregnant women in difficult relationships, Gatineau Dupré asks, would have the time and wherewithal to do so?

To change a child’s name in France, you need to prove “legitimate interest”—a designation so restrictive that it has been brought to a UN Committee on Gender Equality and condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. (The court also recently found in favor of a Spanish woman who alleged discrimination in being forced to give her child the father’s name ahead of her own.) The process is cumbersome and can take years. Both parents must consent to the change, even if only one has custody of and cares for the child.

Mere bureaucratic side effects? Cultural difference? I don’t know if there’s really a distinction—or whether arcane laws always create their own customs. Gatineau Dupré sent me a poem by Catherine Pilade, a member of her group, that attempts an explanation. I have translated two of the stanzas loosely, in an effort to preserve the rhyme as far as possible:

Am I wrong to feel so revolted
By the words of one once beloved?
That I should have to ask a man, in 2021,
That my name be given to my sons?

I am learning about feminism at my expense
I walk the path of those who did not accept this difference
Just as, in French, the masculine prevails over the feminine
Your father overruled the decision of your naming.


Madeleine Schwartz, an advisory editor at The Paris Review, is a writer based in Paris, where she teaches journalism at Sciences Po.