A traditional address to a crowd of people is Mesdames, Mesdemoiselles, Messieurs — whose order of words represents decreasing degrees of respect. A less formal variant is Messieurs-Dames.
It is normally impolite to address people by their given names unless one is a family member, a friend or a work colleague. Also, contrary to English or German usage, it is considered somewhat impolite to address someone as Monsieur X: a mere Monsieur is in order, when not referring to the person as a third party. An excessive usage of Monsieur or Madame may indicate irony, implying that the person addressed or referred to is pompous.
Monsieur/Madame given name family name, by far the most polite form of address, is generally reserved for the most solemn occasions. Monsieur/Madame family name or given name family name is polite and used in normal formal occasions, as well as in the formal quality press (Le Monde, Le Monde Diplomatique, for example). By contrast, in colloquial usage the family names of personalities are used alone. Formally, a married or widowed woman can be called by the given name of her husband (Madame (given name of husband) family name or Madame veuve (given name of husband) family name); this is now definitely out-of-fashion.
In the workplace or in academic establishments, particularly in a male-dominated environment, it is quite common to refer to male employees by their family name only, but to use Madame or Mademoiselle before the names of female employees.
Military officers are addressed by their rank (not "monsieur"). Male officers of the Army and the Air Force are addressed as Mon
As a punishment by Napoléon Bonaparte, Navy officers have not been addressed as "mon" since the Battle of Trafalgar. Confusingly, the title used does not always match the rank. "Lieutenant" is the form of address for an enseigne de vaisseau, "capitaine" for a lieutenant de vaisseau and "commandant" for a capitaine de corvette, frégate or vaisseau.
In everyday written contexts, ranks are abbreviated.
Traditionally, most people were given names from the Roman Catholic calendar of saints. Common names of this type are Jean (John), Jacques (James), Michel (Michael) or even Jean-Baptiste (John the Baptist) for males, Marie (Mary), Jeanne (Jean) or Julie for females. In certain regions such as Brittany or Corsica, more local names (usually of local saints) are often, but not always used (in Brittany, for instance, male Corentin or female Corentine; in Corsica, Dominique (suitable both for males and females). However, people from immigrant communities often choose names from their own culture. Furthermore, in recent decades it has become common to use first names of foreign origin, such as Kevin, Enzo or Anthony for males; for females, Jessica, Jennifer, Karine or Sonia. Also, females were given names that are feminine to the common French names like Jacqueline and Geraldine.
The prevalence of given names follows trends, with some names being popular in some years, and some considered definitely out-of-fashion. As an example, few children born since 1970 would bear the name Germaine, which is generally associated with the idea of an elderly lady—however, as noted above, such old-fashioned names are frequently used as second or third given names (middle names).
Almost all traditional given names are gender-specific. However, a few given names, such as Dominique (see above —completely gender-neutral), Claude (traditionally masculine) and Camille (traditionally masculine), are given to both males and females; in medieval times, a woman was often named Philippe (Phillipa), now an exclusively masculine name (Phillip). Compound given names, such as Jean-Luc, Jean-Paul, or Anne-Sophie are not uncommon. These are not considered to be two separate given names.
The second part of a compound name may be a given name normally used by the opposite sex. However, the gender of the compound is determined by the first component. Thus, Marie-George Buffet has a given name considered as female because it begins with Marie. The feminine component in male compound names is mostly Marie, as in Jean-Marie or Bernard-Marie. In the past, some Frenchmen would have Marie or Anne as first name (example: Anne du Bourg). Second or third given names, which usually are kept private, may also include names normally used by the opposite gender. For instance, in 2006, 81 Frenchmen have Brigitte among their given names, 97 Catherine, 133 Anne and 204 Julie.
First names are chosen by the child's parents. There are no legal a priori constraints on the choice of names. This has not always been the case. The choice of given names, originally limited by the tradition of naming children after a small number of popular saints, was restricted by law at the end of the 18th century. Officially, only names figuring on a calendar or names of illustrious Frenchmen/women of the past could be accepted. Much later in 1966, a new law admitted in a limited number of mythological, regional or foreign names, substantives (Olive, Violette), diminutives and alternative spelling. Only in 1993 were French parents set free to name their child without constraint. However, if the birth registrar thinks that the chosen names (alone or in association with the last name) may be detrimental to the child's interests, or to the right of other families to protect their own family name, the registrar may refer the matter to the local prosecutor, who may choose to refer the matter to the local court. The court may then refuse the chosen names. Such refusals are rare and mostly concern given names that may expose the child to mockery.
To change a given name, a request can be made before a court (juge des affaires familiales).
The ratio of the number of family names to the population is high in France, due to the fact that most surnames had many othographic and dialectal variants (more than 40 for some) which were registered as separate names around 1880 when “Livret de famille” were issued. According to the French Institute for Statistics INSEE, more than 1,300,000 surnames have been registered in the country between 1891 and 1990, and about 200,000 disappeared meanwhile (mainly orthographic variants). It is believed that the number of family names at any time since 1990 hovers between 1,200,000 and 800,000. However, not all family names are of French origin. According to different estimations, 50 to 80 percent of French citizens would be the bearers of rare family names (less than 50 bearers alive at the census time).
In France, until January 1, 2005, children were required by law to take the surname of their father. From this date, article 311-21 of the French Civil code permits parents to give their children either the name of their father, mother, or a hyphenation of both - although no more than two names can be hyphenated. In cases of disagreement, the father's name applies This brought France into line with a 1978 declaration by the Council of Europe requiring member governments to take measures to adopt equality of rights in the transmission of family names, a measure that was echoed by the United Nations in 1979. Similar measures were adopted by Germany (1976), Sweden (1982), Denmark (1983) and Spain (1999).
A popular misconception is that a particule always indicates membership of the former nobility. Almost all nobility titles were of the form
In some cases, names with particules are made of a normal family name and the name of an estate (or even of several estates). Thus, Dominique de Villepin is Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin; Hélie de Saint Marc is Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc (in both cases, omitting second or other given names). As in these examples, most people with such long family names shorten their name for common use by keeping only the first estate name or, in some cases, only the family name. Whether the family name or the estate name is used for the shortened form depends on a variety of factors: how people feel bearing a particule (people may for instance dislike the connotations of nobility that the particule entails; on the other hand, they may enjoy the impression of nobility), tradition, etc. For instance, one never refers to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing as "d'Estaing", probably because his particule is a recent addition to the family surname by his father. On the contrary, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is often simply referred to in the press as Giscard.
Traditionally, the particule de is omitted when citing the name of a person without a preceding given name, title (baron, duc etc.), job description (général, colonel, etc.) or polite address (monsieur, madame, mademoiselle). Thus, one would say Monsieur de la Vieuville, but if calling him familiarily by his last name only, La Vieuville (note the initial capital letter); the same applies for Gérard de la Martinière, who would be called La Martinière. Similarly, Philippe de Villiers talks about the votes he receives as le vote Villiers. However, this usage is now losing ground to a more egalitarian treatment of surnames; it is, for instance, commonplace to hear people talking of De Villiers.
Note that English language medial capital spellings such as DeVilliers are never used in France
This distinction is important, because many official documents use the maiden name of the person.
People may also choose to use other names in daily usage, as long as they are not impersonating others, and as long as their usage name is socially accepted. One example of this is the custom of actors or singers to use a stage name. However, identity documents and other official documents will only bear the "real name" of the person.
In some cases, people finally change their real name to their stage name; for example, the singer Patrick Bruel changed his name from Benguigui. Another example of aliases being turned into true name: during World War II, some Resistance fighters (such as Lucie Aubrac) and Jews fleeing persecution adopted aliases, and some kept the alias as a legal name after the war or added it to their name (Jacques Chaban-Delmas' name was Delmas, and Chaban was the last of his wartime aliases).
Truly changing one's last name, as opposed to adopting a usage name, is quite complex. Such changes have to be made official by a décret of the Prime Minister. Requests for such changes must be justified by some legitimate interest: for instance, changing from a foreign name difficult to pronounce in French to a simpler name, or changing from a name with unfavorable connotations.