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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

When can you drop ‘monsieur, madame’ and use first names in France?

Many anglophones will find France more formal than they are used to, especially in matters of address, so we asked French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis how you know when it's time to get friendly.

When can you drop 'monsieur, madame' and use first names in France?
When meeting someone for the first time in France, what should you call them? Photo: AFP

As well as the tu/vous minefield that French learners have to negotiate, if you spend time here you will also be faced with another dilemma – when is it OK to address people by their first name and when should you stick to addressing them as, for example, Monsieur de Gaulle or Madame Macron.

READ ALSO French language dilemmas: When to drop the vous and get friendly

As well as formal grammar rules there are some informal things to be learned. Photo: AFP

This isn't a question that has a simple answer as it varies a lot depending on factors including your age, where in France you are and the social circles you move in.

But following a question from a reader, we asked French language expert and Paris native Camille, founder of French Today, to give us some pointers on how to establish what you should call someone by their first name and when you should keep it formal.

Age

This is a big difference and levels of formality will vary depending on your age and the age of the person you are talking to.

Camille said: “If you're an adult then you can address any child by their first name.

“Other than that if there's an age gap of 20 years or more then you should probably address the older person as Monsieur or Madame unless they tell you otherwise.

“If you are the older person then it is up to you to give permission for your first name to be used.”

In general, as in most countries, people of an older generation are more likely to be formal than younger ones.

So while workplaces with a predominantly younger staff are likely to be first-name zones, in other workplaces older employees may prefer to keep the monsieur/madame, especially for people in senior positions.

Place

You will also find quite a contrast between the big cities and the small towns and villages of rural France, with people in the cities more likely to go informal.

Camille said: “As a general rule smaller places do tend to be more formal.

“There is also a class element and it tends to be the case – although there are a lot of exceptions – that people who are nobility or haute-bourgeoise will be more likely to stay formal for longer while rural or working class people tend to move more quickly to first name terms.

“Be careful with farmers though – don't make assumptions about their class as some farmers are really more like local nobility and are quite well off.”

There's also the place where you meet the person, if you are going for a formal meeting with the mayor or at your bank, it's definitely better to use monsieur/madame to be on the safe side.

If you have a meeting with the mayor it's probably best to stay formal unless they invite you to do otherwise. Photo: AFP

Just ask

Of course the major pointer is how people introduce themselves to you – if they introduce themselves by a first name you can safely assume they are happy to be called by it.

But in situations where you either didn't get an introduction or you aren't sure then it's probably simpler to just ask.

Camille says: “French people will not expect you to know all the ins and outs of the French language and manners so there's no harm in asking.”

Est-ce-que je peux t'appeler par ton prénom ? – Can I call you by your first name? 

Or a simpler and less formal Je peux t'appeler Camille ? – Can I call you Camille?

Or, if you aren't yet on a tu-basis, you say:

Est-ce-que je peux vous appeler par votre prénom ? or Je peux vous appeler Camille ?

If you're the one who is being addressed as monsieur or madame you can say Appelez-moi Camille or just gently correct them when they say madame: Camille, s'il vous plaît.

Or if you know the person quite well you can adopt a more light-hearted tone and say Arrêtes avec ta madame ! Appelle-moi Camille – Stop it with the Madame! Call me Camille.

Other options

The French language does also contain a couple of other options for addressing people, including one that can work as a sort of halfway house between formal and informal – Monsieur/Madame plus the person's first name eg Monsieur Jacques or Madame Brigitte.

Camille says: “This is a lot more common in a rural setting but forms a nice little construction that shows respect but also friendliness and informality.  However, it's not a formulation that someone who fancies him/herself has upper class would use.”

There is also the option to address people by their job title eg Monsieur le Professeur, Madame la Rédactrice-en-chef, Monsieur le Ministre. This is formal and an expression of respect.

Camille says: “If you were going to see a politician, for example, it would be appropriate to address them as Monsieur le Maire or Madame la Préfet or whatever their title is.

“There are also certain jobs in France that have their own method of address, for example lawyers are addressed as Maître (master, even if they are a woman).”

And finally if you're a fan of political speeches you may have heard politicians referring to mes chers compatriotes or mes chers citoyens (my dear compatriots/fellow citizens) – unless you are actually the president of the republic it's probably best to give this one a miss.  

Don't read too much into it

And finally, don't assume that using a first name or full name is an indication of whether the person likes you or not, it probably has just as much to do with them, their habits and the situation as it does how they feel about you.

Camille says: “I always called my cleaning lady Madame just because that was how we started off addressing each other.

“Now she is retired and we often meet for coffee because we have become friends but I still don't use her first name – I think of her as Madame X now so that is how she will stay in my mind.

“It's often just what you become used to and then it can be hard to change.”

Do you have a language question for Camille? Email us at [email protected] and we'll ask for her expert advice.

Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French language expert, and founder of FrenchToday.com. 

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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