From mademoiselle to madame: Finding my place in France


The French love the concept of ‘mise en place‘. That is, a home for everything, and everything in its home. This term is most often associated with cooking, but I think it also aptly describes their penchant for obsessively giving names to things.

Les Français adore articles, assigning arbitrary genders to the most neutral of things, and they insist on attaching a title to people every time they are addressed.

Where in Australia, a customer entering a shop would be addressed with a simple “Hello” (or indeed, perhaps not at all); in France one will most certainly be addressed using monsieur, madame or mademoiselle.

For men, it is very straightforward – every male other than the youngest of children are referred to as monsieur. For women, it gets a little more complicated. If you are unmarried, you are referred to as mademoiselle, otherwise, madame.

Finding my place in France

8561281578_39b3a3c257_oIn France, because of my age, shopkeepers usually take a gamble and call me mademoiselle. And after more than a year in Paris, I came to quite like the sense of identity that came along with it. Somehow, I felt that being addressed as mademoiselle meant I was somehow more French; that I belonged more, even if my surname gave me away as a foreigner.

And just when I was starting to get used to being addressed as mademoiselle, I went and got married, and overnight, without anyone asking my permission, I became madame. Where mademoiselle implied a certain mystery, and fancy-freeness, madame seems concrete, serious, and somehow makes me feel old.

No middle ground for the French

8561281612_77434b3c98_oWhilst I live in Australia, I can maintain some sort of neutrality, on paper at least. The helpful ‘Ms’ option appears on all forms and documents from a tax file return to an information sheet at the spa. But for the French, there is no such fence sitting.

French novelist Marie Darrieussecq sees this as a blatant case of female inequality:

“The freedom of women in France is very much a matter of words, and I think it is intimately related to language.”1

But really, I don’t mind all that much. Whilst the title might make me feel a little ‘frumpy’, I don’t take it to be a bigger statement about my role as a woman. Then again, perhaps if I was born French, I’d feel differently. 

To all women – French or otherwise, how do you feel?

1. ‘Madame, Mademoiselle: in France these are about sex, not respect‘, by Marie Darrieussecq for The Guardian 24/02/12.
Image Credits:
1. Rue Madame, by THEfunkyman on Flickr
2. Mademoiselle, by shelfappeal on Flickr
3. MF Taiwan, by gabriel.jorby on Flickr 

About the Contributor

Alison Eastaway

“I am Australian-born but Parisienne at heart. I've spent 8 years in Paris, and can usually be found sipping coffee on café terraces or snuggling up with my cat and a book. Follow me on Twitter, or find me on LinkedIn."

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  1. Alyssa Linn Palmer Jun 1, 2013 at 1:30 PM - Reply

    I didn’t even think that there wouldn’t be a third option in French, like there is ‘Ms.’ in English. I always select ‘Ms.’ in forms. In France I’d still be mademoiselle. Personally I wish they had identifying prefixes for men, too. That way I could know which ones were still available 😉

  2. Alex Mealey Jun 8, 2013 at 2:14 PM - Reply

    Haha Alyslinn! I also like your suggestion!
    It is also raises another point on gender inequality – that men get to remain anonymous with regard to their marriage status when it comes to prefixes while French women cannot.

    • Alyssa Linn Palmer Jun 15, 2013 at 11:36 PM - Reply

      And for men, their marriage status didn’t matter, because they could have mistresses and lovers. But the ladies had to be virtuous if they were married. An unfortunate (and still common, as far as I can tell) double standard.

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