Is it time the French finally ditched the word ‘mademoiselle’?

Five years ago France tried to get rid of the word "mademoiselle" on the grounds of equality, but it still lingers on and on International Women's Day, feminists tell The Local it's time for it to go. But it's a delicate subject.

Is it time the French finally ditched the word 'mademoiselle'?
Photo: MadameouMadame
You may not have known it, but the French word mademoiselle, that we are all taught at school to mean “miss”, is rather offensive to some. 
Feminist groups hate it, politicians have tried to eradicate it from public documents, and many women wince when they hear it.
But still, the word remains popular and well used in France – so what's the problem?
It's mainly about equality – why should there be a word to separate married and unmarried women when there isn't the same for men?
And it's also about privacy – why should women have to reveal their marital status if they don't want to?
Adding insult to injury, the word mademoiselle actually comes from the term 'oiselle', which can also mean 'virgin'. 
And to rub extra salt in the wound, there actually was a male equivalent for the word mademoiselle – mondamoiseau – but it faded into obscurity several decades ago, perhaps even longer ago.
With this in mind, Francois Fillon, yeah that guy who is currently running for president, banned it from official documents back in 2012 when he was prime minister. 
He issued instructions for the word to be removed from all official forms, meaning all women were to be referred to as “madame”.
Asking for a woman's “maiden name” (or “nom de jeune fille” in French) or “married name” was also banished.
His move came after a campaign spearheaded by feminist group Osez Le Feminisme. 
Celine Piques, a spokeswoman for the group, told The Local on International Women's Day that there has been progress since the 2012 law change, but that “it could be better”. 
“Most of the state departments have taken the new law into account, but it's not been so well applied with corporations who maybe aren't so aware of the laws,” she tells The Local. 
She adds that a lot of big companies will still have the “mademoiselle” option in their online application forms, something the group will often bring to their attention.  
“You shouldn't have to tell your boss about your married life, your private life, especially when there is a discrepancy that men don't have to do it,” she said. 
“I prefer that people call me madame, regardless of my marital status, but I am a feminist activist. If it offends others too, my advice is to politely explain why you're offended.”
And to be fair, the public has been slow to catch on.
Ask any French woman about the word and you're bound to get an opinion on it. Some even say they enjoy the thrill of coming across as young enough to be considered a mademoiselle.
Beatrice, a 35 year-old Parisian woman, says she gets called both “madame” and “mademoiselle”.
“When people call me madame I feel old, and when they say mademoiselle, I feel 20 again,” she says. “Although when people see me with my kids, they always use madame.
“I don't see why it should be ditched. It might have been for single ladies originally but for me it just means younger women.”
But Osez Le Feminisme thinks differently.
“Contrary to popular belief, it is not flattering to tell a woman she's available, particularly in a professional context,” their website says.
Their members can still be found wearing badges and logos with the word mademoiselle crossed out like in a no-smoking sign. 
Will 'mademoiselle' die out?
Piques hopes that she hopes the word vanishes from popular usage.
“Language is something that's free to evolve, but I do hope the word eventually disappears. I think it would be easier to just say Madame and Monsieur, but we will see how the French language will evolve.”
French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis agrees that the topic is “a delicate question” and ditching it won't always work.
“We still use the word mademoiselle a lot when we speak… Calling a twelve year old girl “madame” would just sound silly in France. I don't think anybody would do that,” she tells The Local. 
Mademoiselle also remains fashionable, not least in the fashion industry with boutique clothing stores using the word to appeal to young women.
So what should we be saying? According to the feminists, you should be using the word madame – end of story. 
And there might be a few men, not least French language learners who wold be happy for there to be just one option.
“Madame or mademoiselle? It's a real pain,” one man tells Osez Le Feminisme's campaign video. “I never know what to say. Out in the street or at work, we have to guess if the woman is young or not, if she's married, if she might have kids. We can't get our heads around it.
“I just call everyone madame. It's easier and more respectful.”
Perhaps what the French need to do is come up with an alternative like “Ms” in English which is neither Mrs nor Miss and allows a woman to keep her marital status secret.
However that only really works for the forms. Perhaps in speech they could do away with both mademoiselle and madame but then the French like their formalities.
According to Chevalier-Karfis, you basically need to decide on a case-by-case basis. 
“The question you need to ask yourself is: could this woman be married ? If so, you go for madame,” she says. 
“I don't know. Most of the time I wonder if I used the right word myself,” she says. 
In a blog post on the topic, she says the word is rife with danger, as using it can give off a whole host of meanings.
“If you are a man, and say 'bonjour mademoiselle' to a 45-year-old, you could sound flirtatious,” she writes. 
“However if you said 'bonjour madame' and the 45-year-old woman answered with a big smile and said: 'non, mademoiselle'… well, then, she is flirting with you!”
So should you use it or not?
In writing, definitely not. In spoken language – probably not. But in case that you do want to use it (and only do so at your own peril), then Chevalier-Karfis has one last piece of advice:
“The middle e is silent, so if you're going to say it, it's 'mad mwa zel',” she says. 
The debate about whether the whole word should be silent will likely rumble on for years to come.
For members


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.