Double-hyphen surname law gets both barrels

Au revoir Bruni--Sarkozy: State decides extra dash is ungrammatical and mangles the French language

It's official, the double-hyphenated, double-barrelled surname that has been imposed on 175,000 French children since 2005 is ungrammatical, un-French, and must be abolished.

Five years ago, the French state decided that all new double-barrelled surnames must be spelt with two hyphens: Dupont--Dupond rather than Dupont-Dupond, for example.

That decision, implemented by bureaucratic decree, generated a series of arcane legal battles in which parents – mostly lawyers – objected to their offspring being double-dashed.

The Conseil d'Etat, the highest administrative watchdog, has now handed down a definitive ruling. The state exceeded its legal powers when it imposed the new spelling by decree in December 2004, the sages ruled. Worse, much worse, the French state had mangled the rules of the French language by recognising an abomination like the double hyphen.

Within the next few days the government is expected to issue a statement meekly accepting the ruling. Those children who have been given birth certificates with names such as Deschamps--Dubois or (hypothetically) Bruni--Sarkozy will be offered a choice. They can either ask for their double surnames to become single-dashed. Or they can, if they wish, remain ungrammatical for the rest of their lives. The ruling concerns only 5 per cent of French children born since 2005: that is, the roughly 35,000 babies born each year whose parents chose to unite their surnames.

It all started with a law drawn up in 2002 with the best of intentions: it abolished the sexist concept of a "patronymic", from the father's surname, in favour of a "family name".

Instead of children automatically taking their father's surname, parents were given four options. Children could: take their father's name; or their mother's name; or a double- barrelled name with the father's name first; or one with the mother's name first. The law stipulated, however, that such new, "composed names" must, like mules, not have offspring of their own: only one half of the name could be passed on to the next generation.

But what of existing double- barrelled or "composed" names such as Giscard d'Estaing or Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa? A change in the law – also issued by decree – made a distinction between the "old" and "new" double-barrelled surnames. Old names, which could be passed down through the generations, would remain single-hyphenated or not hyphenated at all. The new "lifetime" double-barrelled names would be branded with two hyphens.

The French state argued that the "double hyphen" was just an administrative convenience for use on official documents. It was intended simply to distinguish the "new" single-generation double-barrelled names from the traditional ones. The second hyphen could be dropped in "ordinary life".

The French state has a long history of trying to lay down rigid rules for names – both surnames and first names. The double-barrelled first name (such as Jean-Marie or Marie-Louise) became popular when the state barred all but a restricted list of religious or traditional names. Now that anything goes for first names – even Kevin or Ryan cause no stir – such double first names have become less common.

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