The Observer

In France, a First Name Is More than Just a Name

Popular in the 1990s, Anglo-American names like Dylan, Brandon, and Kylie have become often-embarrassing social markers. In France, some 2,700 French Kevins apply for a name change every year.
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© Hervé Pinel

If people’s first names are a window onto a social world, as some sociologists suggest, then recent events in France have shed light on a complex and sensitive issue. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, two guys called Kévin – respectively. Pfeffer and Mauvieux – have been elected to the National Assembly, where they sit alongside fellow representatives with “traditional” first names like Pierre, Eric, Olivier, Jean-Pierre, and other Jean-somethings.

Dubbed by the media as les deux Kévin (French proper nouns don’t take a plural “s”), both belong to Le Rassemblement National, or National Rally, the far-right party formerly known as Le Front National, which scored significant wins in parliamentary elections this June. To outside observers, the focus on a first name might seem strange, since Kevin – with or without an acute accent – is hardly an unusual moniker. But here in France, it has class-laden connotations linked, among other things, to the structure of Le Rassemblement National and the type of voters that the party represents.

A potted history may be of use. From 1803 to the 1990s, French law required that newborns be given conventional names from the Christian calendar of saints – think Marie, Madeleine, Jacques or Jean (again). But in 1993, the law was changed, ostensibly to allow for a greater choice – regional and foreign names, diminutives and “names from mythology” were allowed – but also to accommodate inevitable and ongoing changes in social practices. The new ruling’s results were both spectacular and unexpected: In addition to the likes of Tifenn (from Brittany), Milo (Provence) and Othilie (Alsace) – plus the occasional Déméter or Pérséphone – thousands of French children were baptized with quirky first names, a sizable proportion of them Anglo-American.

In his insightful study of French society in flux, L’Archipel français (2019), the sociologist Jérôme Fourquet attributes the naming trend to the spread of American popular culture in France in the 1960s and 70’s and, more specifically, to the success of Hollywood movies like Dances with Wolves (starring Kevin Costner) and Home Alone (with a lead character called Kevin). Another big pop-culture influence was the TV series Beverly Hills 90210, featuring not only a Kevin but also a Brandon, a Dylan, and a Kyle. Music and fashion also made a mark, with Cyndi Lauper and Cindy Crawford becoming role models and namesakes for young girls.

All of these first names became wildly trendy in France, especially among working class socioeconomic groups. A social researcher, Baptiste Coulmont, believes that the so-called Kevin boom embodied “the cultural emancipation of the popular classes” from the elite. Once upon a time, he explains, popular first names would follow a trajectory that began in the higher social groups then gradually filtered down to the middle and then the working classes. This top-down model, which applied to a host of other social norms, became skewed during the latter part of the previous century, and the craze for Anglo-American names was probably one of the most visible (and audible) consequences. Thousands of parents were convinced that an “exotic” name would give their offspring a distinctive personality and a classy aura. And what could be classier than silver-screen stardust? Needless to say, not every child born during the period was named for an American actor or fashion model: Naming trends tend to follow a bell-shaped curve, peaking then gradually declining in subsequent years. But, during the glory days, Kevin, Kylie & Co. wore their names with pride, blissfully unaware that they had become social markers.

kevin-fafournoux-sauvons-les-kevins-film-france-1
© Hervé Pinel

It is against this backdrop, after a lengthy period of social and political disruption in the late 2010s, that the two Kevins’ arrival in the French parliament has made headlines. Even though one of them is an insurance agent and the other a management consultant, some conservative observers sniffed that the newcomers were clearly from what is politely called “the popular classes.” Indeed, Jérôme Fourquet has found a near-perfect overlap in what he calls the “Kevin/Dylan map” of first name distribution and the map of Rassemblement National voters. Nearly thirty years after the original naming fad, it would seem that anyone called after an erstwhile screen heartthrob is classed automatically as a working-class reactionary: Ryan the Redneck or Kevin the Country Cousin. But things are obviously more complex. While most of the so-named kids born during the 1990s were indeed from the lower echelons of the socioeconomic ladder, today’s cohort is far broader as a result of social mobility.

As Baptiste Coulmont observes: “Kevins are everywhere today. Stereotypes are being overturned because young people now grow up with a teacher called Kevin, a doctor called Kevin, etc.” Yet anti-Kevin prejudice, a blanket term encompassing Dylans, Jennifers, Jordans, et al., is an unfortunate – and often serious – reality. In 2015, the Observatoire des Discriminations, a research institute monitoring social exclusion, found that job applicants named Kevin were between 10 and 30% less likely to be hired than someone called Arthur, despite having equivalent qualifications and experience. Other Kevins have talked openly about the class contempt experienced because of their name – for example an academic snubbed because his middle-class Anglophile parents named him after the Irish saint Kevin of Glendalough (“Had they realized, they would have called me James or Harold”); or a would-be student politician told by his professor that no one would take him seriously. Indeed, data from the national statistical institute, INSEE, reveal that some 2,700 Kevins apply for a name change every year.

Others, by contrast, are standing up to the prejudice. Kevin Fafournoux, an art director and motion designer, is making a documentary titled Sauvons les Kevin (Let’s Save the Kevins), which he describes as a film “about Kevins, with Kevins and by a Kevin.” He wants to restore the dignity of the Kevinosphere. The election of Messrs. Pfeffer and Mauvieux should be seen in that light, he says, while admitting that, in an ideal world, it would go unnoticed in the media. Yet that same media coverage has brought the issue to the limelight and placed it in a broader context.

For all the attention on Kevin et al., it should not be forgotten that France is a multicultural society and that French-born children bear names such as Mohamed, Aisha, Kamila, and Rayan. Two of France’s Top 50 Favorite Personalities are called Omar (Sy) and Teddy (Riner). Moreover, the term nom de baptême – the equivalent of “Christian name” – is never used in official texts and crops up only rarely in everyday speech (le prénom being the accepted term). These seemingly mundane facts are worth bearing in mind when, for example, a candidate in the recent presidential election publicly insisted that newborn children be given “French” first names at birth – a throwback to the early 19th century law – and that calling a child Mohamed is tantamount to colonising France. No one asked him whether he considered Kevin (or Kévin) to be French.

Thus the answer to “What’s in a name?” is “Quite a lot!” One day, perhaps, France will have a president named after an American actor. After all, back in 2016, not many people believed that an American commander-in-chief would bear the name of a cartoon duck.

 

Article published in the September 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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