The origin of "Madame" and "Mademoiselle"
Firstly, it's important to know that the term "Mademoiselle" is composed of the possessive adjective "ma" and "demoiselle".
In the Middle Ages the word "demoiselle" referred to a young girl, or a noble woman who had no title and was not married. As for the term "damoiseau", it referred to a young man who was not yet designated as a knight.
As early as the 18th century, the word "demoiselle" applied only to women who were not yet married. Regardless of their age, throughout their lives, young or old and still single, they will be called "demoiselle". The term is then associated with marriage, referring to a woman as a virgin and "to be married".
The terms "Madame / Mademoiselle" came into use at a time when women were minors for life (Code Napoleon, 1804). At that time, women were not considered independent, free. This meant that she was subject to the authority of her father or husband. She had to depend on a man.
In order to put an end to this notion, quickly qualified as sexist and discriminatory, certain associations militating for women's rights will ask for the disappearance of the term "mademoiselle" from the forms. The requests will be heard in 2012. The term "Mademoiselle" will then be removed from French administrative and official documents.
Nowadays, the term "mademoiselle" refers rather to young girls, minors and women who are still single. Since marriage is no longer an obligatory stage in a woman's life, the term "mademoiselle" is used according to age.
What does French law say about the term "Mademoiselle"
In 2012, thanks to the law proposed by the Minister of Solidarity Roselyne Bachelot, several terms were removed from French administrative and official documents: Mademoiselle, nom de jeune fille, nom patronymique, nom d'épouse et nom d'époux
In the workplace, the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Gender Equality first wrote a guide that calls for the adoption of "language without stereotypes" :
"All sexist expressions such as: head of family, miss, maiden name, wife's name, etc. must be removed. All these expressions are banned from French law. Monsieur and Madame are sufficient. It is necessary to remove "Mademoiselle" from all forms, letters, work contracts..."
The term "Mademoiselle" is therefore prohibited in all French administrative and official documents.
Don't worry, you will not be fined in any case if you call a woman "mademoiselle".
In private life, there is nothing that prohibits the use of this term. But sometimes it can be judged, particularly by feminist associations, as a sexist and discriminatory word.
The abbreviations of Madame, Mademoiselle and Monsieur
You may have seen it before, but there are abbreviations for these designations which are as follows :
Monsieur : M.
Messieurs : MM.
Madame : Mme
Mesdames : Mmes
Mademoiselle = Mlle
Mesdemoiselles : Mlles
These abbreviations can only be used in front of a surname, a first name or a title:
M. le Maire,
MM les ministres,
They are written in full and without capital letters when used alone or when speaking directly to the person :
- Je ne connais pas ce monsieur
- Je vous écoute madame.
They are written in full with a capital letter when they constitute an official title:
- Il s'agit de Monsieur le Premier Ministre.
Or when they are the first word in a book :
Madame de Bovary.
Mademoiselle de Montegarde.
What about "Mademoiselle" in other French-speaking countries?
The term "mademoiselle" has been disappearing around the world for about 50 years now.
The Swiss administration has suppressed the term "Mademoiselle" since 1973, Quebec in 1976, Luxembourg in 2012 and Belgium in 2015. They have now joined the movement.
In other countries, the question never arose. This is the case for Sweden and Norway. Titles simply do not exist.
In a nutshell :
At the present time very little use is made of "Mademoiselle" because, as I have indicated, it is frowned upon for many people to use it. It's preferable to use only "Madame" even in everyday life. This will save you some debate and also some conflicts.
Nowadays "Mademoiselle" is only used when addressing a very young girl or a woman who wants to be called "Mademoiselle".
For safety, I advise you to always use "Madame".
Mesdames and Messieurs, see you soon for new adventures in French of course! 🇫🇷