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Why the French still can't choose between Madame and Mademoiselle

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Why the French still can't choose between Madame and Mademoiselle
Are they both madame or is one a mademoiselle? Photo: michaeljiung/Depositphotos
10:52 CEST+02:00
Many people will have been taught in school that in France you refer to younger or unmarried women as mademoiselle and older or married women as madame. But that does that teaching still hold true today?

What may at one time have been a hard and fast rule is increasingly open to debate, leaving many French learners confused as to the correct civilities.

And they're not alone, as many French people are equally unsure about exactly how to address women.

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There has been a sea change in recent years, with many women pointing out that if all men are simply monsieur then it is unnecessary to differentiate between married and unmarried women or young and old women.

While mademoiselle, or mam'selle in its shortened form, was once used for all younger and unmarried women, these days it's increasingly used only for very young women or not at all.

In 2012 the term Mademoiselle was officially banned from all legal forms in France and you will notice on an increasing number of websites the box for civilité (title) contains only options for monsieur or madame.

Disquiet around the term mademoiselle also centres around its origins - it comes from the word oiselle which is an old-fashioned term meaning virgin - and the fact that there was once a male equivalent for a young man - mondamoiseau - but it hasn't been used in the last couple of hundred years.

There have been several efforts to ban it altogether, but it's still here, although it seems that French people are less and less keen on it.

Julie, a 26-year-old archaeology student, believes that the world is slowly letting go of the title mademoiselle

She said: "In the law it is forbidden to use mademoiselle now, and I like it, we're not completely there yet but we are getting used to it, and honestly it is much better madame and monsieur, otherwise if you want to use mademoiselle, you have to use jeune-homme.

"When someone addresses me they use mademoiselle with me, which most of the times I'm okay with, but sometimes you feel as if the person addressing you as mademoiselle has a hidden and weird motive behind it, for example using it to flirt and it annoys me a lot." 

Louise, 32-year-old teacher, refers to all the females she meets as madame, even her youngest pupils.

"I always use madame, it allows me not to differentiate between women and men. Also it decreases the chances of assuming whether that person is married or not, or her age, or her looks.

"Some people address me as madame and others as mademoiselle but personally, I prefer madame, I use madame with everyone, even my young pupils, to eliminate the differentiation between them.'" 

Serge, a 54-year-old man who works as a commercial account manager, says that madame is always the easier option and he believes that mademoiselle is discriminatory. 

"I always address women I don't know as madame because it is more respectful that way.

"For example, if we relate this to age, she could be young and married, so to address someone who's 19 years old and married as mademoiselle has some disrespect in it. I do use mademoiselle, but only with family member or someone I'm sure of their age, then I could address her as mademoiselle." 

Juliette, a 25-year-old saleswoman, usually uses madame to call or address other women - for her it depends on whether it's in the working environment or an informal one. "I usually use 'excuse me' both in formal and informal manner when I need to address someone, but if I need to use it I use madame.

"Sometimes when I am called Mademoiselle by other women I feel as if they're belittling me, but then again when I get called Madame it makes me feel as if I'm old. I find it better and equal when you call all the women madame."  

Forty-one-year teacher Annabelle told us that she has been taught when she was younger how to address women properly "my father taught me and said to me as long as you're not married, you're referred to as mademoiselle, and then when you marry someone you become madame, but of course there is a certain age where you should stop using mademoiselle with unmarried women.

"But that doesn't mean I look at someone's finger before addressing them, I feel that mademoiselle was used more before, but now it's falling out of use.

"It makes me happy when people refer to me as mademoiselle, it makes me feel young, whereas madame conveys more the idea of an old woman."

Emmanuel, a 42-year-old human resources worker, believes that the word mademoiselle, despite being very charming, is nonetheless outdated.

"There is a rule in the French language about when to call madame and when to call mademoiselle and it's about the marital status, mademoiselle is no longer used by people. I usually am referred to as madame but when someone addresses me as mademoiselle it makes me laugh, it's nice." 

Harvey, a 58-year-old retired man, said that to him it always depends on the age of the person you're addressing. 

"To me, it always depends on the age of the person I'm talking to. Mademoiselle is usually for young women, but that doesn't mean you can't call an old woman that. However now in the French law it is forbidden to use mademoiselle anymore but I don't think anyone cares about that, it's actually a debate that everyone is overstepping."

Thierry, a 30-year-old receptionist, also thinks that mademoiselle is outdated and no longer used. 

"I use madame when I need to, not only because it is better but also it's more respectful. Other than that, I always take the easy way out of a situation and use neither madame or monsieur, I just go with 'excuse-me', that is a safer way because you never know whether the person identifies with that gender or not, so not using a title is more respectful." 

As for Christian, a 62-year-old man, he thinks that most of the time the proper way is to use madame unless it is a young woman you're addressing, then you can use mademoiselle.

"For me I think we should all use madame because there have been multiple issues about this, women protesting about the fact that they don't like being called mademoiselle, to not distinguish women for their age. But at the end of the day, it is not a bad thing to use mademoiselle as long as the female is 18 or younger."

As for Omar, the last person we talked to, he is a 29-year-old optician who doesn't use the title mademoiselle at all. "I just don't like that word, so I don't use it. Madame rolls off the tongue easier so I always go with it." 

So it seems that you're unlikely to really offend anyone if you refer to them as madame (as long as they are female, that is), and if anyone queries it you can always explain Je suis une féministe profondément engagée (I am a deeply committed feminist).

Do you have a French language dilemma you would like us to try and solve? Email news@thelocal.com

 

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