Mademoiselle – What Might Richelieu Say?

Might the Académie Française – high priests of all that is acceptable in the French language — be tempted to step in over a government ban on using the honorific“Mademoiselle” for official purposes?

Women’s Libbers celebrate their Miss demeanour for now

French Prime Minister François Fillon has directed Ministers of State and Prefectures to ensure that the word “mademoiselle” and other phraseology it deems discriminatory, such as “maiden name” and “spouse’s name”, are removed from all official French documents – but only once existing stocks of forms bearing the terms are all used up.

The government however may have opened up several cans of worms in this haste to ingratiate itself with certain avant garde voter groups ahead of two critical elections – presidential and parliamentary — lying just months away.

For by dint of letters patent granted by the Cardinal Duc de Richelieu to l’Académie Française, it is this august and ancient body which recommends and rules on any changes to language use … and the fight back seems to have started.

According to the MCETV website Alexandre-Guillaume Tollinchi a UMP-supporting lawyer, is seeking to overturn the edict on the suppression of the term “Mademoiselle“. He says for French- speakers “Mademoiselle ” is a question of polite civility. The lawyer claims that any government order to remove the term from administrative documents would be null because it overrides the authority of l’Académie Française: “The executive cannot substitute itself for l’Académie Française when it comes to regulating mandatory usage in the language […] above all, the Prime Minister has no power to remove a term from administrative documents. Under the law as promulgated, even ‘if the Prime Minister has hierarchic authority over the administration, he cannot exceed his powers […] by regulating requirements that […] restrict French language usage’. Additionally the move ‘violates the constitution’[…]” The lawyer says use of “madame” or “mademoiselle” cannot be imposed without the consent of the interested parties themselves […] women must retain freedom of choice to describe themselves in their relationship with state institutions. To retain this right of expression, “mademoiselle” must be allowed to be used as the French themselves see fit”. He criticised what he sees as the rapid capitulation by government to the “influence of politicised pressure groups trampling on civil liberties.” He was referring to the two feminist lobby groups Osez le Féminisme and Chiennes de garde (Dare Feminism and Guard Dogs — actually ‘Bitches’ because the French word is feminine!) which have headed the abolish mademoiselle campaign.

UPDATE: Latest development in his legal battle here:  “Mademoiselle” Becomes a Human Rights Battle

Meanwhile on February 22 the conservative newspaper Figaro ran an online poll asking if readers approved of the suppression of the term. By the time it had closed 24,637 readers had voted on the question: Approuvez-vous la suppression du terme “mademoiselle dans les documents administratifs?” and answered: “Yes 30.21%,  No 69.79%

The actual position of the Académie is not immediately clear and may well not emerge given fears that it could become embroiled in what might be seen as partisan electioneering. “The Académie is France’s official authority on the usages, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language, although its recommendations carry no legal power—sometimes, even governmental authorities disregard its rulings”.

What then is the etymology of this vote-charged term? (click to enlarge image)

The etymology of the controversial term

Translation: Étymol. and Hist. I. A. 1471 “title given to some women of condition” ( Archives of the North , B. 3513, n o 123954 dsIGLF ) 2. , 1670, December 15 “Title given to the daughter of Monsieur, only brother of the King” 1690 ( FUR. : Miss. title of honor that we give to girls and women of ordinary gentlemen). II. A. in 1690 ( ibid. : Miss , is a name given to all girls who are not married, provided they are not the dregs of the people, or daughters of Artisans), 1718 ( Acts . : Miss. Title which is usually given girls) 2. 1760-72 “daughter of the house” ( DIDEROT , Rameau’s Nephew , ed. J. Fabre, p. 22). Comp. of my (v. I ) and lady *.

Mademoiselle is well entrenched in French culture and those now raising the guillotine and waving the red flags of revolution might first want to see what they are up against:  a Google search for instance shows more than 7,600,000 references to great artworks, novels, films, music, etc., where the now maligned Mword appears in the title. Below is a very restricted sample.

Take as a start Mademoiselle Fleury, the celebrated Comédie-Française actress of 1786 born Marie-Anne-Florence-Bernardy Nones and who despite marriage to one Valentin Chevetel insisted on being known as Mademoiselle Fleury; or Mademoiselle Marseille , the first album by the Moussu T e lei Jovents music group released in April 2005 and distributed by Harmonia Mundi; and the 1932 novel by Roger Chauviré: Mademoiselle de Bois-Dauphin awarded a Grand Prix du Roman by l’Académie Française; or the 1935 French movie directed by Yvan Noé Mademoiselle Mozart about a man who falls for the beautiful owner of a musical instruments shop…; the short Balzac novel of 1847 Mademoiselle du Vissard; or Mademoiselle de Maupin the French actress and singer born in Provence whose real name was Julie d’Aubigny and who made her first appearance at l’Opéra de Paris in 1690, playing the rôle of Pallas in the opera Cadmus et Hermione by Lully, her life is sent out in some detail here. Then we should not forget the novel Mademoiselle Liberté by Alexandre Jardin, a French writer and cinéaste whose work was awarded the Prix du Premier Roman and Prix Fémina in 1988; street names such as Rue Mademoiselle in the XVe arrondissement of Paris, named in 1827 and opposite Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Grenelle church, on which sits the Mademoiselle primary school named after Marie Therese Louise d’Artois, daughter of the Duke of Berry and Duchess of Parma; and Mademoiselle , a romantic comedy directed by Philippe Lioret starring Sandrine Bonnaire and Jacques Gamblin and released in France in March 2001; or the 2009 film Mademoiselle Chambon directed by Stéphane Brizé adapted from the novel of the same name by Éric Holder. Finally there is another Mademoiselle de Maupin, the 1835 novel by Théophile Gautier his first great work and not forgetting the 1966 film Mademoiselle, based on screenplay by Marguerite Duras and Jean Genet and produced by Tony Richardson with Jeanne Moreau playing the title role.

Should the reader want more try these. The point of this list is merely to demonstrate that pressure groups believing that by suppressing the term on official forms they will somehow change centuries of accumulated cultural usage, may have underestimated their task.

Here for instance are a couple of images out of several hundred thousand that emerged from the ‘misogynistic’ Google when asked for images using the term Mademoiselle:



La Petite Mademoiselle

The battle of the feminists —  spurred on by a gender-issues-awakening sparked by the ongoing Strauss Kahn self-destruction folie — is not new.

One language controversy in which the Académie did get involved was the officialisation of feminine equivalents for the names of several professions. In 1997, Lionel Jospin’s government began using the feminine noun “la ministre to refer to a female minister, following the official practice of Canada, Belgium and Switzerland and a common, though until then unofficial, practice in France. The Académie, however, insisted on the traditional use of the masculine noun, “le ministre” for a minister of either gender.

Use of either form remains controversial and indeed the issue of language usage is a second string in the bow of  feminists fighting this battle royal against ‘sexisme de la grammaire française’ or grammatical sexism.

It is a bataille which other Francophone countries are waging under the umbrella of the epicene movement. This writer in the Guardian newspaper of London noted: “As with many Latin languages, the masculine form trumps everything when it comes to grammatical agreement of adjectives and so forth. We say Un Français et trente millions de Françaises sont contents; those 30 million French women have to be contents in the masculine form as dictated by their one male companion, rather than contentes as they would be without him…”

So beware all ye members of the French-grammar-battler-brigade, it might soon get worse. Vehement abolitionists have the bit between their teeth and a petition is circulating to reform the grammar by abolishing all its masculine and feminine agreements or basically to neuter the language: Après la polémique autour de la suppression de la mention administrative «Mademoiselle», c’est le sexisme de la grammaire française qui est cette fois en ligne de mire. Lancée par un collectif d’associations en avril 2011, la pétition qui réclame la suppression de la vieille règle d’accord des adjectifs selon laquelle «le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin» a obtenu presque 4 000 signatures.

The petition backed by “L’égalité c’est pas sorcier !“, “La ligue de l’enseignement“and “Le Monde selon les Femmes et Femmes” calls for the abolition of the rule that in making adjectives agree with nouns “the masculine form always takes precedence over the feminine”. It has so far attracted 4479 signatures, however a very quick scan of the first 40 suggests that only two appear to be from men!

The petition goes on to set out one of its objections namely the basis used by Abbot Bohours, who helped set the rule in the 17th century, that: “When both genders meet, the noblest should win.” The petitioners want the adjective to agree with the closest noun when two different genders form part of the sentence.

Thus the precedent set by the Fillon directive may yet stoke bonfires already built by others determined to revolutionise the French language. Part of the fight is led by academics and others in Geneva, Ottawa and Brussels integrating the Epicene movement. The University of Geneva has produced this comprehensive guide to neutering the language. Other views can be found here at a Québec college network dedicated to improving French: Quelques points de vue sur la rédaction épicène

Generations of foreigners who have despaired over the correct grammatical agreements between French nouns and adjectives —  a common feature of all Latin-derived languages — might now be in for a shock if a fight harking back to the 1789 French Revolution is revived: “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted in 1789 by the  Assemblée nationale constituante at the height of the French Revolution and prepared and proposed by the Marquis de Lafayette.  In 1790 Nicolas de Condorcet and Etta Palm d’Aelders unsuccessfully called on the National Assembly to extend civil and political rights to women. When this did not happen French activist and playwright Olympe de Gouges (below) published her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen early in 1791 as a way of exposing the failure of a Revolution that had been devoted to gender equality:

In 1647 the dominance of the masculine in grammar appeared with rules introduced by the grammarian Claude Favre de Vaugelas: “The male is the most noble, he must prevail whenever masculine and feminine appear in the same sentence”. Until the French Revolution, the terms Madam, Mademoiselle, Monsieur were generally reserved to the bourgeoisie: Madam referred to a woman of nobility and Mademoiselle referred to a woman of the landed gentry. It was Napoleon who instituted the distinction between married and single women.

So are the feminists really about to start a Chinese-style cultural revolution aimed at rewriting 1000 years of French cultural accretion? Maybe but it will be a long struggle just to eradicate mademoiselle from speech and the written word never mind all the rest.

Here is Picasso with a suggestive last word for the equality czars — try throwing Domoiseau, Demoiselles and Damoiseau into the debate:

What would Picasso say to a change of title? Image via Wikipedia

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Damsels of Avignon) is a large oil painting done in 1907 by Pablo Picasso and widely considered seminal in the early development of both cubism and modern art.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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