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Should we say “Madame LE président” or “Madame LA présidente”? French Academy vs. National Assembly

By Marie Decreme

Incident at the French Assembly on Monday 6 October: the UMP MP Julien Aubert, despite being reminded that this was not acceptable, continued to address the session chairwoman, Sandrine Mazetier (PS), as “Madame LE president” rather than “Madame LA présidente”. The MP was ended up being fined 1378 euros... « Shocking » for some but for others “he deserved it, he was looking for trouble”.

A clash of genders at the French Assembly... Not too surprising but still it is not very often that fines are handed out to the culprits. M. Aubert’s attitude has been judged too “provocative”, according to Claude Bartolone, President of the Assembly. The MP had indeed been warned several times: “Either you respect the presidency (…), you must use the formula ‘Madame la présidente’ (Madame the chairwoman), (…) or you will be subject to a written recorded reprimand.” To which he answered “Do so then, Madame le président (Madam Chairman) (…), I am using the rules set by the French Academy.” Claude Bartolone ended up saying: “The French Academy does not set the rules of the National Assembly, the Assembly does.” And these two little letters cost Julien Aubert 1378 euros (approx. £1,100)… However, it was not his first clash with Sandrine Mazetier: last January, the same dispute happened during another session, but Sandrine Mazetier did have the final say on that occasion: “Mister La deputée, you were our last speaker.”

French Academy vs. National Assembly… One of the debates only France holds the secret to! This quarrel around the feminisation of titles has been going on for ever, but this is the first time it has become the subject of a penalty. Most right-wing MPs refuse the feminisation of the functions. Why? Because “only the masculine gender (…) can be used in relation to the neutral nature of titles, ranks, dignities and functions.” In other words, a political function cannot be identified by the person who is performing it. It should remain neutral and hence use the masculine noun in French.

You may think that the French are the only ones discussing this type of issue at length but this is not the case! The same problem exists in the UK, where neutral equivalents are more and more used, so you do not have to choose between “chairman” and “chairwoman” for example. The Anglo-Saxons talk about a “chairperson” or just a “chair.”

Dictionnary of the French Academy

A lot of fuss for not very much, you might say… but the incident on 6 October raised a more serious issue. Explanation: according to the dictionary of the French Academy, “ambassadrice” (“ambassadress”) refers to “the wife of an ambassador” and not to a woman who is an ambassador, as well as the term “présidente” denotes “president’s wife.” There is no word however to qualify the person who would be the husband… of the president. This is where it gets tricky: the French Academy refuses the feminisation of the titles so that the political function stays neutral, and does not get confused with the person who is occupying it. But because there is a formula to name the spouse of the president or the ambassador, the words used to refer to these functions seem to have been suited for men.  In reality, feminisation of the functions is a very symbolic matter, not a linguistic one.

It is a fact that today, more and more women hold key roles in business, politics and other fields, for instance a quarter of MPs are women – 155 députées (as per the Assembly) in total or 155 députés (as per the Academy). It is definitely time to realise that parity has a place in the language as well (and in the Academy where there are only five women out of forty members by the way!). The process is under way. So let's shake up the male bastion that is the Academy.


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