03/16/2012 01:09 pm ET Updated May 16, 2012

Mademoiselle Est Morte: Let Us All Weep


When Nicholas Sarkozy came to power five years ago, confirming right-wing control of the government, he made two moves that sharply upstaged and startled his Socialist opponents. Not only did he appoint more women to cabinet posts than ever before, but he also put more Muslims in high office than ever before.

It didn't take long before most of them were gone, either pushed aside by the hard-right core of his supporters or undone by their own gaffs. Now, however, Sarkozy's mild-mannered and more centrist prime minister Francois Fillon has come to a partial rescue. Henceforth, he has ordered that women may no longer be addressed as Mademoiselle -- at least not in official letters or direct discourse. Identifying a woman's marital status in that manner, Fillon said, was neither useful nor justifiable.

At last! Feminists worldwide might scream. Ms. Magazine, after all, was founded more than 40 years ago by Gloria Steinem. But France is a country that changes slowly.

The official death of Mademoiselle came about, apparently, thanks to one of the few important ministers left in the Sarkozy cabinet, Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, head of the Ministry of Solidarities and Social Cohesion. Never mind that the Sarkozy government has steadily whittled away at the health ministry and its world-famous system of health care, pushing it more and more to resemble the American system of private insurance reimbursement. Mme Bachelot-Narquin argued that suppression of the French equivalent of "Miss" would contribute to greater cohesion among French women. Cohesion is a rare commodity in this increasingly class and race-divided land. And now it may be even more so. A poll launched by the conservative daily Le Figaro reported that of some 17,000 French people surveyed, 75 percent were not happy with the official execution of Mademoiselle.

As several French feminists pointed out in celebrating the change, Mademoiselle, even more than "Miss," has also presumed a category of sexual comportment. Les Mademoiselles were presumed historically to have preserved their virginity -- unless, of course, they were supporting the patriotic cause, as presumably they famously did during World War I.

Like most Americans of a certain age, I still recall the word Mademoiselle broadcast decades after The Great War in sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Waltons and from the most famous song brought home by British and American doughboys, "Mademoiselle d'Armentières." Many English versions existed, almost all including the famous first verse, recalling the plentitude of a French innkeeper's daughter.

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?

Mademoiselle from Armentieres,

She hasn't been kissed in forty years,

Hinky, dinky, parley-voo.

A few French feminists in pressing the battle asked why only women were to be judged by their marital status. Why not, for example refer to an adult male virgin, if such a creature could be found, as mondamoiseau, suggesting a kinship with a male bird that hasn't yet zoomed out of his nest.

Nonetheless, for the moment, even as the Sarkozy campaign lurches further and further to the Right (with a recent declaration that some civilizations -- for example French civilization -- are superior to others), some of the entourage have "dared to embrace feminism."

The next target they might examine is the near universal use of ma femme -- literally "my woman" -- for a male's partner, married or not, while standard usage for the male is mon marie -- husband, or the man who cares for me. Even French feminists seem little perturbed by a locution that plainly suggests that a woman is the property of her man.