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France bids adieu to title ‘mademoiselle’

With nary a kiss to the hand nor tears of parting, the French government this week bids adieu to “Mademoiselle.”  In a memo addressed to state administrators across France, Prime Minister François Fillon ordered the honorific — akin to “damsel” and the equivalent of “miss” — banished from official forms and registries. The use of “mademoiselle,” he wrote, made reference “without justification nor necessity” to a woman’s “matrimonial situation,” whereas “monsieur” has long signified simply “sir.”




The choice of mademoiselle, madame or monsieur appears most everywhere one gives one’s name in France: opening a bank account, shopping on the Internet or paying taxes, for instance.




Mr. Fillon’s order, signed on Tuesday, came after an advocacy campaign of several months by two French feminist organizations, “Osez le feminizme!” (“Dare to be feminist!”) and  Les Chiennes de Garde (The Watchdogs). The government minister Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, whose portfolio includes questions of “social cohesion,” pleaded the groups’ case with Mr. Fillon.




“You’ve never wondered why we don’t call a single man ‘mondamoiseau,’ or even, ‘young male virgin?’ ” the feminist groups ask on a joint Web site. “Not surprising: this sort of distinction is reserved for women.”




Magali de Haas, a spokeswoman for “Osez le féminisme!,” expressed the hope that, in time, private organizations would also drop “mademoiselle” and that the term would fall out of popular use.




The niceties of the French language are monitored and debated by an august institution, the Académie Française, which typically operates on a time scale commensurate with its venerability and has yet to offer comment. Nor have all Frenchwomen rejoiced at news of the change, given not only long tradition but also widespread disdain for more avid strains of feminism, deemed to lack sufficient appreciation for the joys offered by the differences between the sexes.



Men are often called “jeune homme,” or “young man,” through their 20s, and not “monsieur,” Ms. de Haas noted. She suggested a similar distinction be made between the “young woman” (“jeune femme”) and more senior “madame,” thus avoiding “mademoiselle,” a term that harkens to notions of female subjugation, she said.




As early as 1690, the terms “mademoiselle” and “demoiselle” were used to signify “unmarried female,” according to the French Nation Center for Textual and Lexical Resources.





“Mademoiselle” entered into official use under Napoleon I, the creator of the French civil code, but came into broader use only in the 20th century, according to Laurence Waki, the author of a recent book on the subject.




Historians know remarkably little about the origins of the term, Ms. Waki said, which she saw as unsurprising because it refers to women. “It always seemed such a minor detail,” she said, “especially because the majority of historians are men.”



Ms. Waki said she was “thrilled” to learn that “mademoiselle” would disappear from official forms, though she added, with a bit of chagrin, “I can’t really believe that we’re still only at this stage.”




Some women deplored the seriousness with which feminists have approached the “mademoiselle” question, shrugging off what Ms. de Haas called “symbolic violence” of the word.




“I find it’s a shame,” said Juliette Beniti, 61, a former factory worker puffing on a cigarette on a sidewalk just outside Paris. “ ‘Mademoiselle’ had its place.”




“It’s flattering,” she said. “I often call women ‘mademoiselle.’ It’s pleasing. It makes a person feel younger!”



Olivia Cattan, the founder and president of Paroles des Femmes (Words of Women), an aid group, said the move was frustrating, given deep gender inequities in pay and political and corporate prominence.




“We think this measure is just smoke and mirrors, to avoid talking about more important issues,” she said. “The urgency was elsewhere.”




After a contentious cultural debate decades ago, English-speaking nations have largely replaced “Mrs.” and “Miss” with “Ms.” In Germany, the term “fräulein” (“little woman”) is no longer in official use. In Italy, honorifics are typically not used on official documents. And in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec,  “madama’ is used for all except the very young and those who insist on “mademoiselle.”




On state forms in France, the terms “maiden name,” “patronymic” and two expressions meaning “married name” are to be replaced by “family name” and “used name,” Mr. Fillon said in the memo. Apparently hoping to avert waste, he instructed that old forms should remain in circulation until the “exhaustion of stocks.”




No official estimates were offered on Wednesday as to when those supplies might run out, but there were concerns among some that, given the French state’s penchant for bureaucratic paperwork, its current provision of forms might last some time.




By Scott Sayare – February 22, 2012


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