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France bids adieu to the term 'mademoiselle'

French women will no longer need to declare marital status on official forms after the government demanded the term "mademoiselle" be dropped. Solidarity Minister Roselyne Bachelot (pictured) said the move would "end a form of discrimination".


French language learners might soon have to update their text books after the government signalled the beginning of the end for the term “mademoiselle”.

Under pressure from feminist groups the French government has decided that a women’s marital status should no longer matter when it comes to bureaucracy.

Up until now French women have been asked to identify themselves on administrative forms either as a married “madame”, or a “mademoiselle” - a term used for unmarried young women.

Having to make that choice is deemed sexist by many because men are always referred to as “monsieur”, whether they are married or not.

The Prime Minister’s office has now instructed authorities to only use the term “madame” in a move Solidarity Minister Roselyne Bachelot said would “end a form of discrimination”.

The shift has been hailed as an important victory by France’s feminist movement.

“Little by Little”

Clemence Helfter from Osez le Feminisme told FRANCE 24 the dropping of the term “mademoiselle” is more than just a symbolic victory for gender equality.

“People say to us ‘don’t you have better things to campaign about for women?’ but for us this is a real victory. This word is just a part of an unequal system and each time we gain a victory like this we are beating male domination little by little,” she said.

“Miss” - the English equivalent of the word “mademoiselle” - has been slowly phased out over the years as “Ms” has become the more commonly used term.

The German “Fraulein”, which literally means “little woman” was outlawed from official use back in 1972. In Spanish, a latin language like French, the use of “senorita” is now seen as old-fashioned.

But young women in France are still regularly greeted by the term “mademoiselle” whether it’s by a waiter in a café or when having to identify themselves when shopping online.

“Mademoiselle is not flattering it’s intrusive,” said Ms Helfter. “It’s old-fashioned. Let’s get a move on. Less and less people are getting married in France so what is the point of using it anymore?”

Changing times

Some local authorities have already heeded her call. Last week the council in charge of Paris suburb Fontenay-sous-Bois abolished “mademoiselle” from official documents because it was “condescending and sexist”.

They also banned the term “nom de jeune fille”, which means “maiden name” from all paperwork because it was “archaic” and had “connotations of virginity”.

Officials in Cesson-Sevigne, a town in Brittany, took a similar step two months ago.

Some feminist commentators have put the rejuvenation of France’s feminist movement down to the fallout from the sordid sex scandals involving former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Groups like Osez le Feminisme were angry that comments made by members of the French elite and some media coverage of the case seemed to belittle rape and was too sympathetic towards Strauss-Kahn.

Just weeks after his arrest in New York on accusations he sexually assaulted a hotel chamber maid more than 40 feminist groups held what was considered the biggest conference on women’s rights in a decade. More than 600 activists turned up to the rally in Paris.

“Times are changing in France. While we have often heard it said that feminism was outdated and belonged in the past, we have recently seen a profound resurgence of a yearning for equality,” said Osez le Feminisme leader Caroline De Haas in an article for British daily the Guardian.

The fight goes on

If the feminist movement has been given a much needed boost it still has a big fight on its hands to gain real equality for women in a country where they were not allowed to vote until 1944.

Ms Haas points to the fact that 80 percent of casual workers in France are women and the wage gap stands at 27 percent in favour of men. Only 18.5 percent of members in the lower house of parliament are women compared to 21 percent in the UK, 33 percent in Germany and 46 percent in Sweden.

One of those representatives, Chantal Jouanno, has gone on record saying French politics was so sexist that she didn't dare to wear a skirt in parliament.

In French boardrooms, only 15 percent of executives in large French companies are women. A new law has set a quota for 40 percent by 2017.

The issue is coming to the fore at a key time with France just weeks away from the first round of voting in this year’s tightly fought presidential elections.

Dozens of feminist groups are set to meet the candidates from various parties at a meeting in Paris next month where they will demand more is done to tackle the wage gap and call for restrictions on sexual advertising.

“It’s very important for us to know whether the candidates have it in their minds to tackle these issues of gender inequality,” Marie-Noëlle Bas from the feminist group Les Chiennes de Garde President told FRANCE 24.

Ms Bas told FRANCE 24 that President Nicolas Sarkozy had still not confirmed he would attend the meeting. Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande and the Green Party’s Eva Joly have said they would be there.

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