In the land of Maurice Chevalier and DSK, the word Mademoiselle has become so loaded that two feminist groupuscules have had it banned from administrative forms. The French Prime Minister Office's surprising decision this week shows the level of despair within Nicolas Sarkozy's camp, anxious to reach out to as many voters as possible. Only weeks before the first round of the French presidential elections, every little helps, from Angela Merkel's support to that of a handful of French feminists. I can hear Candidate Nicolas tell his advisers: "Let's get those women's votes with our teeth."
It will, of course, be a satisfaction to many French women not to have to tick the Mademoiselle or Madame box and answer what their nom de jeune fille is, as opposed to their nom d'épouse. French women have indeed lived in a world where they carried their father's name and then their husband's. All changed in 2005 when a law allowed children to be given their mother's name, and grooms to adopt their bride's name. It was a landmark rule. Last year, I suggested my husband-to-be embrace the glorious name of Poirier ("pear tree" in French). He politely declined. To be honest, I never envisaged adopting his. Egalité.
The ban of Mademoiselle seems a little trickier. Let's leave administrative forms aside and dive into the culture of everyday life. Having been officially a Madame for a few months, I'm still addressed everywhere as Mademoiselle. Should I feel belittled by such address, as feminists have hinted? Not at all. Au contraire.
Mademoiselle is given to women who are youthful in looks or attitudes, whether they are 20 or 60. There can be a fair amount of cheek and frisky gallivanting on the part of the person who chooses to call you Mademoiselle, especially if you're past your early twenties. It is part of our culture and, if nicely done, contributes to peaceful intersex relations, the kind that doesn't exist, for instance, in the United States, where men and women always seem to be at each other's throats, with sex and litigation going hand in hand.
If it carries the flirtatious insouciance of French culture, Mademoiselle also conveys a whiff of impudence. In French culture, Madame stands for bourgeoise, Mademoiselle for female Gavroches. Madame stands for settled down bores, Mademoiselle for agent provocatrice.
Remember Mademoiselle de Montpensier? Louis XIV's cousin was called La Grande Mademoiselle (her father was referred to as Le Grand Monsieur) and this was not because of her height. A fierce woman, she fired the Bastille cannons in 1652 during La Fronde. Remember French actress Jeanne Moreau in François Truffaut's Jules et Jim? At 84, she is still definitely a Mademoiselle. So was the French star Arletty whose carefree style always enraged the Establishment. When asked about her affair with a German officer during the war, the star of The Children of Paradise replied: "My heart belongs to France but my ass is international." No Madame could say such a thing.
There are, perhaps, more pressing issues on the feminist agenda than the loss of one symbolic word. What's the use of being called Madame if Monsieur still gets paid more (for the same job; a French man is paid 27 per cent more than a French woman)?
Finally, in pure aesthetic terms, the administrative ban of Mademoiselle looks as foolish as it is unnecessary. The world is vile enough, as Edith Wharton wrote, not to have to lose such a beautiful word, one that encapsulates French culture so well by marrying frisson with effrontery.