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

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
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.

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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