Agnès Poirier: There is an alternative to the M word

Share

Would Simone de Beauvoir have been amused? The latest initiative by French feminist groupuscules, Osez le féminisme (Dare Feminism) and Chiennes de Garde (Guard Bitches), is certainly intriguing: they want France to eliminate the word Mademoiselle and make it illegal. They argue that Mademoiselle is a "derogatory" term, marking unmarried women as "minors" or "inferiors". Madame would be "respectful" but Mademoiselle is apparently "condescending".

I totally agree there is a gender imbalance here, in that French men are not addressed differently according to their marital status. They are Monsieur from the time they can grow a moustache until their death, while French women are officially Mademoiselle until marriage makes them Madame. But is it "derogatory" and "condescending"?

The term has, in fact, no legal value. It is an administrative detail that a woman can easily discard. If she is married but still wants to be called Mademoiselle, or if she is an actual Mademoiselle and wants to be addressed as Madame, she can tick the box of her choice: nobody is going to take her to court. The choice of word has become mostly cultural. Madame is the general usage for all grown women, but Mademoiselle lives on as a compliment for women of all ages who have retained a youthful look, manner or character. It is coquettish perhaps, old-fashioned certainly, but condescending? I'm not sure.

All cinephiles remember this scene from Carol Reed's The Third Man: four Allied soldiers come to arrest Alida Valli in the middle of the night. They wait outside her door as she gets dressed. As she takes her bag and follows them, the French soldier picks something off the floor and says: "Your lipstick, Mademoiselle." The audience always laughs kindly.

What do my British female friends think? Are they happy to tick the "Ms" box rather than be called Miss or Mrs? The thing is, you're never called Miss in Britain unless you are a Miss Jean Brodie type. Ma'am is for the Queen. And in a "Call me Tony" culture, Mrs or Ms are left in the never-to-be-used prefixes category. In Britain, men and women are often introduced simply by their first names followed sometimes by their surnames. It sounds professional; perhaps it is the way forward for the French.

For many French feminists like me, there are far more pressing battles to fight than banning a lovely and innocuous word from Molière's vocabulary. What is more important for a French little girl today? To be addressed as Madame from the age of four, or to know that her mother is paid the same as a man doing equivalent work? What is more important for a French women today? Never to hear the word Mademoiselle again or to be reassured she can find a place at the crèche for her three-month-old baby? What matters more, banning a word that has only cultural significance, or that we get more women in parliament? We should learn from our mothers who, in 1972, broached the issue of titles, and decided that, actually, there might be more substantial issues to campaign on. Thanks to their efforts a law on patronyms that came into effect in 2005 means French children can now carry their mother's surname and a French man can adopt his wife's surname. These were fights worth having. It is sad that there remain more pressing issues for women than doing away with Mademoiselle, but it's true.

But since we're on the subject, I have a radical suggestion for my French sisters-in-arms. Let's relegate Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle and revive Citizens, like in 1789. It would certainly be refreshing to greet each other as "Citoyen" or "Citoyenne". I think Simone, too, would have approved.

www.agnespoirier.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

£27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Shanghai  

Is Russia and China’s ‘Nato of the East’ more than a Potemkin alliance?

Nigel Morris
A petition calling for Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party, to be included has been signed by nearly 200,000 people  

Let me list the reasons that the Green Party should definitely not be allowed into the TV election debates...

Mark Steel
US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines