Why do so many Chilean politicians have French names?

Why do so many Chilean politicians have French names?

Why do so many Chilean politicians have French names?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 2 2010 6:48 PM

Pinochet and Bachelet

What's with all the French-sounding names in Chile?

Michelle Bachelet. Click image to expand.
Michelle Bachelet

In the wake of Saturday's massive earthquake, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has appealed to foreign nations for aid. Several Explainer readers noted that Chile's former dictator, Augusto Pinochet, also had a curiously Francophonic name. Do the French have a strong influence in Chile?

It's just a coincidence. Non-Hispanic European names are fairly common in Chile, originating primarily from a 19th-century influx from Germany, Britain, France, and Italy. Bachelet's great-great-grandparents emigrated from Burgundy, France, to work in the wine industry; Pinochet's ancestors came from Brittany. The names of other recent presidents—like Patricio Aylwin Azocar and Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle—reflect the broader scope of immigration (from Wales and Switzerland, in those examples). Most Chileans have Spanish surnames, and, like Bachelet, those with other European names are of mostly Spanish ancestry, anyway.

As with many immigrant groups, the French decamped to Chile seeking economic opportunity. Most came to work in commerce or claim the newly seized Mapuche lands that were being auctioned off by the Chilean government. Some of those who found financial success from their business ventures bolstered their social standings by marrying into the existing Chilean elite. These prominent landowning families were descended from the early conquistadors and colonial settlers, most of whom were of Basque and Castilian origin, with some French or British ancestry sprinkled in. Bernardo O'Higgins Riquelme, one of the most famous heroes of the Chilean War of Independence, had both Basque and Irish heritage.

According to scholars, many Chileans are fixated on genealogy and take pride in being descended from the nation's great founding families. Asking one's surname can be a handy way for Chileans to place people in the country's social landscape. But there's no particular advantage to having ancestors from France. Some French names carry a special cachet, but most do not. The greatest prestige comes from being associated with aristocratic Chilean families. So while a French name like Subercaseaux might signify membership in the crusty elite, a name like Bachelet would not—at least, not before Michelle's father rose to prominence as a political prisoner of the Pinochet regime.

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Explainer thanks Florencia Mallon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Nara Milanich and José Moya of Barnard College.

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