Jan 282009

(asked by Anne from DC and -I think- currently in France)

The other day when I was visiting a friend in Paris, I noticed that one of the names listed on the interphone in her building was the Comtesse de Something (I can’t remember what). So what’s the deal? France hasn’t had a king from a royal line for forever and égalité is one of the core values of the republic. Can you shed some light?

The deal is pretty simple. Not every noble died during the Revolution (Unfortunately? No, I didn’t say it). The Revolution was not about genocide but about democracy.

First, a common misconception abroad (and even among some uneducated French people) is that the guillotine’s main purpose was to kill the nobles.
Well, if it had been the case, why bother with a guillotine? Torching their houses and gutting them would have been more efficient (or at least faster).
No, the guillotine was just the “tool” to execute people that were sentenced to death.
But at the time, the surest way to get a one-way trip to the guillotine (apart from the obvious: mass murder, etc.) was to be labeled “Enemy of the Revolution.”
That included members of the aristocracy, but not all of them, some were actually in favor of the Revolution (the most famous one being the Marquis de Lafayette). That also included people from the commonalty, especially once Robespierre had taken over and lost it and started to sentenced to death anybody that would disagree with him (until he was deposed and sent to the guillotine).

So, even today, there are living members of the aristocracy in France.

Thing is, that the aristocracy and the titles that go with it have no legal value anymore. But some people, because of the importance of lineage and tradition in those families, or because they still hope to go back to the Monarchy one day (there are some of those in France) kept their title even if nowadays they have the value you want to give them (great value among themselves, no value whatsoever for the rest of the people).

Keep in mind that it’s not the whole aristocracy that does that, just a few (most of them located in the 16th arrondissement of Paris and rich suburbs like Neuilly or Versailles). I had a friend in college that was technically an aristocrat, but his family was your typical French middle-class family, and he couldn’t care less for his noble origins.

While I’m at it, be aware of two things:
Not all people from the aristocracy are nobles from the Ancien Régime. The two Napoléons created their own aristocracies, naming baron, duke, marquis, etc people that were close to them and that were “deserving” for various reasons (military success, financial success, personal favors done to the power in place, etc). I’m not sure what the relationship those “new” nobles have with the Ancien Régime ones, but I suspect the latter to despise the former. And yes, they know who is who, they care that much about ancestry and lineage.
This is also why if you proclaim yourself Marquis of whatever, you can fool a normal French person, but you won’t fool any real aristocrat.

Also, not everybody with a “de” in their last name has noble origins. If the “de” is attached to the rest of the name (Dedieu, Debord, etc) it’s definitely not an aristocrat name but an old French name from the Middle-Ages (for example, Debord means “from the bank” of the nearby river), even though at times, especially if there are many syllables after the “de” the family was an aristocrat one, but attached the “de” to the rest of the name in order to not be seen as such (because they were in favor of the Revolution, because years later they didn’t affiliate themselves with the nobility anymore, etc.).

We also have families that for one reason or the other want to appear noble and managed to attach a “de” somewhere in their last name.
The most famous example is the one of former president Valery Giscard d’Estaing whose ancestors were just the Giscard family but because there was a “d’Estaing” at some point in the family (he seems to have a quite complicated family tree), his dad and other members of his family legally changed their names to Giscard d’Estaing in 1922.

On the other hand, Charles de Gaulle was from an real aristocrat family, even though a very minor one.

And while we’re at it, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin whose real name is Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin, is not an aristocrat either. In the 18th Century, his ancestor Mr. Galouzeau married Miss de Villepin (who was I assume from the aristocracy). It’s one of their great-grandson who legally changed his name Galouzeau to Galouzeau de Villepin in the 19th Century, maybe during one of those times when it was “useful” again to be a noble. The name stayed this way for the next generation.
Why does the former Prime Minister go by “de Villepin” and not “Galouzeau de Villepin” or just “Galouzeau” is unknown to me, but I promise to ask him if I ever met him.

I hope I’m answering your question, and if you have any further ones feel free to ask.

More Questions Answered:

  13 Responses to “What’s the deal with the aristocracy in France?”

  1. Thank you for your very thorough answer!

  2. You forget the aristocracy who were enobled by other states. The Nissim de Camando museum celebrates the de Camando family who were made ‘Counts’ by the Italian state, but who then later were naturalised as French citizens.

  3. Does a two-part name with “Le” in the title generally indicate an aristocratic origin as well? I know some families with names like Le Sage and Le Rossignol here in Australia.

    • No, not at all. It’s just that it’s part of the nickname of that individual Centuries ago that became the last name of his family. Note that they’re usually attached to the name: Lesage, Lerossignol, although I can imagine some people (especially anglos with such a last name) to write it in two words to look more fancy.

      • “I can imagine some people (especially anglos with such a last name) to write it in two words to look more fancy.”

        No, apparently one of them has genealogical evidence that it was always in two parts from before they emigrated as a Huguenot refugee. They said they were aware that some people split the name in two as a kind of affectation though but theirs was apparently the authentic spelling, at least as far back as the 1680s.

        • Forgot to mention that they said that they married a woman named “de La Tour” after emigrating which they thought also sounded noble. Would a non-noble have married a noble in the refugee conditions the Huguenots found themselves in?


          • “De La Tour” is unlikely to be an aristocratic name (see the other response, aristocratic names tend to be proper nouns). It could be a name originated from a family who lived near or in a castle, but more like employees of the noble family owning it or something like that.
            That or some fake aristocrats.
            But really, if they’re not sure, it’s a clear indication that they are not.

            Aristocrats are sure of their lineage and trace it back to the Middle Ages no problem.

        • Well, I have geneaological evidence that my last name was spelled at least two (probably even three) different ways in the 18-19th Centuries.
          See at the time, most people were illiterate, and even people taking care of registry were not the best spellers.

          It’s actually one of the difficulties of genealogy, name spellings constantly change until quite recently.
          And along the same lines, there were no real “official” spelling of a last name until recently (in theory the Revolution, in practice during the 3rd Republic when most people became literate), so those people names may have been written both ways indifferently by different people.
          And in any case, those are not aristocratic names.
          Aristocratic names are almost always with a “de” or a “du” because aristocratic names are the names of a place, the place where the family is technically from.
          By “place” I mean a proper name, not things like “dupuis.”

          Technically, the prefix is separated from the name, but not always. During the Revolution, some aristocrats, either as an attempt to hide their origins or on the contrary because they were in favor of the Revolution and consider themselves citizens, either got rid of the prefix or attached it to the name. And a couple of decades later, when Napoleon created a new aristocracy from scratch, some new aristocratic names appeared.

          • Thanks for that detailed info. I will pass it on to the person I know.

            “If they’re not sure, it’s a clear indication that they are not.”

            Yes, I asked and the family were Huguenot silk weavers by the time they led as refugees. Hence, if they had ever been aristocrats they must have lost that title/fallen on hard times well and truly before the 1680s. (Unfortunately, their genealogical research hasn’t extended any further back than that so far.)

            Thanks again for your help - I know my friend will appreciate this info.

          • No problem.
            Another clue that they’re not aristocrats, the fact that they can’t go beyond the 1680′s. If the family was aristocrat, it’s almost sure that if they manage to go to the 1680′s, they can go beyond.
            Aristocrats always had tons of proofs and traces of their lineage, because that was what made them aristocrats.

          • Thanks for that info. My friend is very down-to-earth so he is not at all worried that he is not of aristocratic birth. It seems to be a bit of a relief to him, actually! He is more proud to be of honest silk weaver stock and to have the Huguenot connection - standing up to the corruption of the Catholic Church, etc.

            They haven’t researched beyond the 1680s because none of the family members speak French and they have only traced from around the expulsion of the Huguenots so far. They may turn up something interesting when they eventually look at the French genealogical records but, as you say, if they were aristocrats, it would be well-documented all over the place.

  4. What about the de Soultraits? The ones involved with Pippa Middleton. Do you consider them aristocrats?

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