Mademoiselle misses the mark in modern-day France

By Catherine Field

One of the most pleasing aspects of life in France can be its egalitarianism.

Whether you are talking to your boss, a plumber or an aristocrat, a simple "Monsieur" or "Madame" suffices to cover the whole social scale. This useful little tool is a legacy of the French Revolution, but another relic of that time, "Mademoiselle", or Miss, is coming under fire.

"Mademoiselle" is popularly used only for teenage girls. In everyday conversations, women are almost always addressed as Madame except where they make it clear that they prefer to be called Mademoiselle. But in official correspondence, most legal documents and even on websites for internet shopping, train travel and airline tickets, women are still told to identify themselves as Madame or Mademoiselle in line with their marital status.

Campaigners are now lobbying for Mademoiselle to be dumped, branding it a sexist leftover of the 1804 civil code set down by Napoleon, which among things declared "the wife is the property of the husband, as the fruit tree belongs to the gardener".

They say Mademoiselle is archaic because it distinguished between those women who were sexually available and those were not, and this discrimination has never applied to Monsieur.

They want Madame and Monsieur to be the sole titles for gender.

The force behind the campaign is a corporate executive who goes by the pseudonym of Mathilde, who became angry when the public notary required her to take the title of Mademoiselle when she signed a contract to sell her apartment.

Her petition has so far drawn nearly 2500 electronic signatures as well as a lot of favourable political support.

Mademoiselle is "a grotesque and ridiculous term", Yvette Roudy, a former minister for women's rights, told Le Monde. "It's a way of indicating whether a woman is a virgin or not."

Over the past two centuries, the most contentious parts of the Napoleonic Code that referred to women have been weeded out of the statute books.

Today no French law requires unmarried women to be called Mademoiselle.

But social traditions can also be extraordinarily strong. Even Mathilde admits that among her unmarried friends, "some appreciate" being called by this term.

"It gives them a value, of not being beyond their sell-by date, a sense of still being desirable and fertile."

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