French battle to bring back 'foreign' names

By Shirli Sitbon, August 5, 2010
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Dozens of French Jews have been fighting a battle that few people were aware of - they've been trying to get their family names back.

Years ago, their parents changed their "foreign-sounding'' names so they would sound French because they dreaded anti-Semitism.

But their children and grandchildren see their old names as a trail of their family history. The problem is, French law doesn't allow someone to revert to a former name. And on the rare occasions requests are considered, officials insist that the whole family must agree.

"I started by filing requests at the State Council 25 years ago, before my daughter was born. I wanted to give her my real name," said Olivier Rubinstein, now Raimbaud.

"My parents changed our name in the sixties because they did not want us to be subjected to antisemitism. They'd been through the war. After my first request, I was told I cannot reclaim what's considered a foreign name."

For 200 years French law has stipulated that family names are "immutable" and must be continued. People can change their last name if it sounds ridiculous or foreign. They can also claim another name if it's about to disappear. But this only applies to "French" names.

About a dozen people formed an association called The Strength of the Name and were received at the justice ministry and filed four new individual requests for name changes.

"We're waiting to see how this procedure goes before we decide how to move forward," said founder Céline Masson. "We insist that we're not asking to change names but to get our names back. It's completely different."

"Frenchifying" names is not a rare phenomenon in France, where assimilation has been a founding principal for centuries. Even President Nicolas Sarkozy's family changed its name, from Sarközy de Nagy-Bocsa.

And the family name of Richard Prasquier, the head of France's Jewish umbrella group CRIF, used to be
Prazkier. "My father changed our name when I was 15. He did it because he knew I wanted to study medicine and thought this would protect me from discrimination at school," he said. "I was a little disturbed by this but I knew he was right because a few years back that same medicine school had barred and discriminated against prestigious Jewish doctors.

"In the Jewish community, names are a trace of our family history although I wouldn't want foreign readers to think that we're suffering from injustice today. I wouldn't want this to look like a protest."

Far right extremists such as National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen accuse them of hiding their true identity so they can infiltrate the spheres of power.

This was reiterated this month in a review by an extreme right group that calls itself 'The National Radical". In an article headed "the Jews who dominate France" it listed hundreds of names of people who have succeeded in various fields and accuses them of controlling the country.

Olivier Rubinstein said: "This is exactly what pushed me to fight to get my name back 25 years ago. At the time Le Pen was citing journalists and artists who had changed their names, accusing them of concealing their identity. I thought that getting my name back would be the right thing to do. I didn't want any doubt over the fact that I never intended to change my name or hide my religion and identity."

    Last updated: 2:54pm, August 5 2010