Paris – and France – no longer has any mademoiselles. Luckily this is not in the wake of a mass exodus of les jeunes, but thanks to new legislation banning the title from all state literature. Last week French Prime Minister François Mitterand announced that women in France will no longer have to define their marital status on administrative documents, from passport applications to tax forms. Instead, France will graduate to a country of Madames, a title currently predominantly reserved for married and implicitly older women.
This will be in line with ‘Monsieur’, which can refer to any male from 1 to 100. The feminist groups Les Chiennes de Garde (Guard Bitches) and Osez le Féminisme! (Dare Feminism!) who have campaigned for the change believe that the legislation will herald a cultural shift, promoting equal gender equality as a symbol of wider gender inequalities.
The distinction between ‘Mademoiselle’ and ‘Madame’ is certainly one of the quirks of the French language. As a polite address to a stranger, the word crops up frequently in conversation across the country, far more frequently than its English cousin ‘Miss’. It also has far more nuanced meaning, able to imply cheeky flattery to a lady of advanced age, condescension if thrown out during a disagreement and at other times affection and flattery. It is a key component of the mild flirting that characterises interaction between the sexes in France.
Along with the choice between the formal ‘vous’ and informal ‘tu’, choosing between ‘Mademoiselle’ and ‘Madame’ is one of the ways in which the French language can be manipulated to convey a specific and at times personal meaning. As far as I’m concerned, its significance is more cultural than legal and has long been an important cultural determiner. Would the eponymous Chanel perfume have the same allure if it were called Coco Madame? Would the story of Emma Bovary have had as much impact if we did not know that she carried a married name and title? I think not. Should women today be offended by the title ‘mademoiselle’ though? Should it by now be considered condescending, even when said with affection?
Despite the engrained cultural significance, campaign groups argue that to make a distinction between married and unmarried women but not men is antiquated and discriminatory. This seems especially cogent when the etymology of the word is considered. The core of the word ‘oiselle’ means virgin or simpleton. The male equivalent for the innocent is ‘Damoiseau’, which disappeared from speech hundreds of years ago, just as Master has in English. In common usage, however, Mademoiselle’s original meaning has been lost by now. A quick survey of available female friends was mostly met with indifference, or vague mutterings that they’d rather be called Mademoiselle than Madame. But then we are all in our 20s. We are not unmarried 50 years olds who feel that their unmarried status is made a daily source of embarrassment.
It also should be noted that France is in the run up to a presidential election, with Nicolas Sarkozy trying to ward off Marine le Pen on the far right and Francois Hollande on the left. Attracting female voters would give his polling numbers a well needed boost and a government spokesperson has said that the change will not happen immediately, that the existing Mademoiselle carrying paperwork will have to be used up. Considering the French’s love affair with bureaucracy of all kinds this could take several millennia. France is also still reverberating from the shock waves of Dominique Strauss Kahn’s sex scandal and gender equality is currently enjoying well-deserved media interest at the moment.
I very much doubt that banning Mademoiselle from administrative forms will lead to the social change the campaign groups are hoping, no matter how admirable their aims. It is too engrained in daily verbal communication and has too many positive, as well as the negative, associations. Trying to regulate a society’s behaviour through the language available for use is rather shaky political ground, reminiscent of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth’s determination that “good” and “not good” replace other adjectives complicated by nuances.
There are plenty of more serious gender inequalities in France against which to battle – only 10% of rapes are reported and there is a 27% gender pay gap. Bring back its brother Damoiseau certainly, mes soeurs, but for now, I am happy to be a Mademoiselle.