Is it time the French scrapped tu and vous?

Everyone who has ever lived in France knows all about the social minefield that is tu and vous - and that goes for the French too. The Local France’s editor Ben McPartland and French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis argue over whether it’s time to ditch the protocol.

Is it time the French scrapped tu and vous?
"Did you just say tu to me?" Photo: Shutterstock

McPartland: Let’s admit it, the whole tu and vous distinction causes so many problems, not just for foreigners but for the French themselves. Isn't it a little out of date for the Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat generation anyway? Isn't it time the French just choose one form of address? Think of all the time and stress it would save.

Founder of French Today, Camille Chevalier Karfis: Maybe it would be a good idea for us to change – it would make it easier for students of French for sure – but I doubt it’s going to happen anytime soon. 

Even though “tu” would often be the default when talking on Facebook and Twitter, it’s far from being the case in all the situations in life. 

“Paymill” – a German based Payment processing company has chosen to use “tu” in all their documentation and correspondence with their users, and every single time, I find it jarring, even offensive.

When speaking, yes, “tu” is more and more common, and it’s also the case for social media conversations, since they are dominated by younger people and casual language, mimicking the street style of speaking. But “vous” remains the predominant form in all written media – even Facebook uses “vous” for its written communication with its followers.

(Always respect your boss with a vous. Photo: Shutterstock)

McPartland: One of my problems with tu and vous is that it often creates an imbalance, a kind of hierarchy of respect. For example I have to say vous to someone older than me or a boss – but they can say tu to me. France is meant to be the country of égalité, but it appears we are not all equal before the law of tu and vous.

Chevalier-Karfis: You're absolutely right. In theory, if someone says "tu" to you, you can say "tu" back to them. The big exception being age.

But "tu" versus "vous" can also be a strong tool for equality. Back in my early twenties, I was working as a secretary. My boss was in her thirties, and soon started hanging out with "the girls and all the women switched to "tu" with her. One day, I went to her office and said "tu" to her.

She replied: "Camille, I'd rather you use "vous". I later grabbed some guts, went back to her office and said "Francesca, since you'd rather have me use "vous", then, please use "vous" to talk to me as well". Her reply was: "Ah! That's how you're taking it!" Damn right… We had a revolution over this lady… It's not because you're my boss that you can "tu" me! And we said "vous" from that day on.

So you see, tu versus vous can be used when the difference of age is great, as a sign of respect. But not as a hierarchy. Well, not since the French Revolution that is.

READ ALSO: Ten ways France could make learning French much easier

McPartland: I have heard so many tu and vous stories like this over the years from foreigners and French people. It just feels like it creates so many problems that to an English-speaker, at least, it seems unnecessary. Especially when it comes to working relationships. All that confusion, all that wasted energy. There are more important things to get on with in life. All those people who felt insulted or disrespected just because of one word. Surely respect is shown not by the choice of one word, I mean you could call someone "vous", but think really they are a plonker and in fact show no respect at all. 

I am not saying lets just have one form of "tu" and "vous" to be like English, I just think one form would work to save the French people a lot of stress. Now I understand that “tu” wouldn't work, because many people couldn't cope with all that disrespect being shown and for to others “vous” is just far too formal and “stuffy” and a bygone age (until they get older perhaps). But can't we come up with a new version that people could start using?  And if not then can't we make the rules clearer. Always use “vous” at work and always use “tu” in the pub or maybe time limits, “vous” during working hours and tu after 6pm. Something, anything?

Chevalier-Karfis: Ha! it’s the first time I hear someone suggesting we invent yet another subject pronoun – yeah, another conjugation to memorize! 

I prefer your suggestion about setting up clearer rules, but you know French people and rules… We do have many stories about “tu” and “vous”, but they are good stories – remember that French people usually love conflict and debate. Confrontation is not a problem in our culture. 

I agree that having a clear set of rules will make things easier for foreigners, but I don’t think the use of “tu” or “vous” is a problem for French people. We choose among them without hesitation: "tu" and "vous" may be a question of age, formality, but it is also very much a question of social class and personal preference. It can convey a subtle yet strong message about who you are, and the relationship you are seeking, and I believe the French are attached to this subtlety. 

(The minefield of speaking French is never tougher than when it comes to the little things. Photo: Shutterstock)

McPartland: OK, I accept my campaign is unlikely to bring about any change. Although it's worth noting that further south in Italy and Spain the formal version of you is much less used these days and it doesn't seem to have done too much damage. Is there anything we can do to make it simpler? After offending in-laws, company bosses and shop keepers in one day I vowed to only use "vous" in future, for everyone, including my partner. Is there any harm in this? Can you recommend any other system to follow? 

Chevalier-Karfis: As far as I know, there is no sign of "vous" formal weakening in France, so I'm afraid you're going to have to adapt.

The simple version would be:

– if you are a child, just say "vous" to any adult who is not your immediate family. Say "tu" to another kid.

– if you are a teen, wait for the adult to allow you to say "tu". Say "tu" to another kid.

– if you are an adult, saying "vous" to another adult is never offensive, and it is usually how you start things off. If the other adult says "tu", you can say "tu" back. Say "tu" to a kid.

– let's not forget that "vous" is the plural form (so the yous guys like they say in Boston) to both "tu" and "vous".

It's rather uncommon to say "vous" to your partner and immediate family, but it is not unheard of. It will make you look somewhat snobbish, that's all…

I am sorry to say that if you plan on living in France, you are going to have to really understand the subtleties about "tu" and "vous" if you want to fit in. There is just no way around it.

Camille Chevalier Karfis is the founder of, and recently appointed expert to the site.


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Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.