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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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

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?

Why the French still can't choose between Madame and Mademoiselle
Are they both madame or is one a mademoiselle? Photo: michaeljiung/Depositphotos

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 [email protected]

 

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.

Masculine

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

Feminine

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 

Plural

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 

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.

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