Agnès Poirier: There is an alternative to the M word

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.