There are two titles used in modern France to address women. "Mademoiselle" is used for young women who are presumed to be unmarried. "Madame" is the title for married women (the equivalent of the English Mrs.) I have been a "Madame" for nearly 23 years now though I was still occasionally called "Mademoiselle" when I was in my 20's/early 30's (in a tone of voice that was both questioning and slightly hopeful). So I was very shocked to hear a doctor refer to my 16-year old daughter as "Madame."
The younger Frenchling, however, took it in stride, got her x-ray (all normal) and explained to her Mom on the way home that "Mademoiselle" was indeed very pretty but is no longer politically correct in the French Republic.
How politically incorrect? The French government in another of those infamous circulaires published on February 21, 2012 is eliminating this title (and other questionable things like "maiden name") in all government documents, forms and other official usage.
According to Le Figaro:
«Mademoiselle» sera remplacé par «madame», précise la circulaire, «pris comme l'équivalent de “monsieur” pour les hommes, qui ne préjuge pas du statut marital de ces derniers». Les noms patronymiques, d'épouse ou d'époux céderont la place à un simple «nom de famille» (dans le Code civil depuis une loi de 2002).
"Mademoiselle" will be replaced by "Madame," says the circular, " the equivalent of "monsieur" for men, which does not indicate their marital status. Patronymics of the wife or husband will be replaced by a simple "family name" (in Civil code law since 2002).
Some (not all) French feminists consider this to be an important victory against sexism in the Hexagone. For Osez le féminisme,
«mademoiselle» comporterait une «connotation condescendante», «madame» bénéficiant en quelque sorte d'un statut supplémentaire.Others are finding this to be a sad sign of the times. This blog has a very touching defense of the title and the blogger firmly reserves the right to continue to use it:
"Mademoiselle" has a "condescending connotation" while "Madame" gives a kind of extra status.
Enfin, ce Mademoiselle est tellement musical qu'il serait bien idiot de le sortir de notre vocabulaire. Puis enfin, vous ne m'empêcherez pas de dire Mademoiselle aux femmes que j'aime bien.
Finally, Mademoiselle is so musical that it would be idiotic to remove it from our vocabulary. And, after all, you will not prevent me from saying Mademoiselle to the women I care for.
I'm firmly on the side of the traditionalists here. It is beautiful and rolls off the tongue quite nicely. It has a certain gallantry that is not, I would argue, sexist. That said, I think the government had good reason to remove it from official usage and it certainly could have been worse - instead of simplifying they could have done as they did in the U.S. and made up a term. "Ms." has become quite common in the U.S. and while it has its place, there is nothing particularly beautiful or musical about it.
So I fervently hope that "Madamoiselle" continues to live on in daily discourse here. However, the next person who refers to me at work as "la petite Miss" is going to get it. :-)