The Guardian. Mademoiselle ? Non merci !

Photograph : Jean Ayissi/AFP/Getty
Sixty years after the feminist revolution, France should join other countries in updating its social etiquette on honorifics

madame : ma-dam a married French woman ; usually used as a title equivalent to Mrs and sometimes extended to older unmarried women to show respect
mademoiselle : mad-mwa-zel a young unmarried French girl or woman, usually used as a title equivalent to Miss
monsieur : me-syœ the conventional French title of respect and term of address for a man
A few months ago I found myself sitting at the Parisian kitchen table of a French couple I had known since university. At some point during the evening, my friend excused herself and went in the adjacent room to phone her landlord. Transferred to his answering machine, I overheard her leaving a message : "Hello, this is Madame Aurélie Duchamp, I am phoning with a question about this month’s rent payment." I raised an eyebrow. Since when had she referred to herself as madame ?
Having lived in London since my early 20s, I had never not referred to myself as mademoiselle – a habit I never thought to question. And so I asked her : why was she using the term when in her mid-20s and unmarried ? She was so young ! Surely mademoiselle was a better choice, when madame was usually reserved for women in their 30s and beyond ? Aurélie rolled her eyes, unimpressed with my remark. "It might be easy for you, with your choice of Miss, Mrs and Ms over the Channel. Here, referring to myself as madame immediately commands more respect, especially in my place of work and even more so when I introduce myself on the phone. People take me seriously, which isn’t always the case when I use mademoiselle. Madame it is for me, thank you very much !"
I forgot about our conversation until last week, when I received a request by a French person who began her email with "chère mademoiselle". I found myself surprisingly displeased with the form of address, as madame must be used when the sender does not know whether the addressed woman is married or not (this person had no way to tell whether I was someone’s wife, but did know I am young). I said it out loud, pondering its meaning. The honorific, etymologically related to "damsel", certainly has a medieval ring to it. There is definitely something belittling about the term, as it originally implied the woman was a virgin and not yet the symbolic property of her husband, as madame implies. No wonder such a patriatchal legacy makes French women feel patronised. This little conundrum wouldn’t exist in England, where the custom is for "Ms" to be used by default when addressing a stranger.
I suspect the lack of choice in the matter comes down to a few cliched truisms about French culture, where coquettish femininity is revered (so much so that it should figure on our list of national emblems). We are also very attached to a laborious old-fashioned etiquette when it comes to social interactions. Ask any foreigner who ever had to contact a superior in a work setting : the many rules attached to properly writing and signing a letter alone are dizzying. A small mistake and the correspondent could be mortally offended. In comparison, the simplicity and straightforwardness of English and American protocols are a breath of fresh air.
This reluctance to change can also be blamed on the French feminist revolution, which has been taking place in a much more quiet and reserved way than in the Anglophone world – almost as though it was ashamed of itself. Women’s rights group have for decades been campaigning for the abolition of mademoiselle with no success, their demands usually swept under the carpet by a media which likes to ridicule them. I remember a group of well-known women who, a few years back, decided to create Chiennes de garde, a group aiming to highlight the sexist way in which women are painted in the French media. They were widely mocked by journalists and TV presenters alike.
For all France’s talk about "political parity", let us not forget that Ségolène Royale was the first woman to ever become a serious contender during a presidential election. Gender studies programmes are few and far between. The F-word is usually only lauded by journalists and politicians when applied to initiatives aiming to "save" female minorities from themselves rather than looking at the structural inequalities perpetuated across the social spectrum. Feminist action groups manage to get a lot of media coverage, but not enough political weight to lobby politicians efficiently. And on a personal note, I have never felt as patronised in the workplace in the UK as I have in France, where middle-aged men had a serious tendency to develop hearing problems as soon as I opened my mouth.
I simply doubt French women will ever be given the opportunity to choose of a neutral third term such as "Ms". Eliminating mademoiselle from our repertoire is wishful thinking – I do not see it dying a slow death as it falls out of fashion in the next few decades. In the meantime, I think Aurélie has it right : insisting on being called madame is currently the only choice for young women who disagree with the status quo. Sometimes, I really wish France would keep up with the rest of the world.

Jessica Reed

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