It was therefore necessary to wait for the municipal elections of 2020 to see women at the head of five of the ten largest French cities. Anne Hidalgo, Martine Aubry and Johanna Rolland retained their headquarters in Paris, Lille and Nantes while Jeanne Barseghian was elected in Strasbourg. Smaller cities like Poitiers, Périgueux, Biarritz or Besançon have also appointed women to head their municipal council. Can we therefore call these newly elected women mayors, as advocated on Instagram on Monday by feminist journalist and activist Lauren Bastide?
At the French Academy, an eminent institution prescribing the proper use of the language, the questioning is elsewhere. “For a long time, the Academy considered that it was more correct to say” mayor “, in order to distinguish the function of the person who exercised it”, explain to Release Patrick Vannier, who works for the dictionary of the immortals. Since 2019, the institution has accepted the “madam mayor” formula, but does not decide categorically. “For the Academy, it is up to the elected women concerned to choose the way to appoint them”, adds Patrick Vannier.
And “mayor”? The term is old. “It appears in the Size Book, that is to say, taxes, from 1296 as well as in lists of trades from the Middle Ages. But we don’t really know what it was about ”, details linguist and historian Eliane Viennot, who advocates for the feminization of trade names. By opening the 2021 edition of Le Petit Robert, we learn that the term refers to “The mayor’s wife” or, more rarely, to a “Woman exercising the functions of mayor”. “In Montreal, Valérie Plante is called mayor of the city without it being a problem”, complete Eliane Viennot.
Why do we have so much trouble adopting it in France? “In modern times, the suffix” esse “has been highly devalued, surely because everything related to the feminine ends up being so. We see it with poverty, which is for example more derogatory than poor ”, underlines Andrea Valentini, lecturer in history of the language at the Sorbonne nouvelle-Paris III university. The suffix was so deprecated that we ended up using it. Result: the word mayor, like many others, has not entered the language and still disturbs our ear.
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“But the principle of language is that it evolves, recalls Andrea Valentini. A few decades ago, the word pharmacist shocked when it was not used for the pharmacist’s wife. ” For the moment, he prefers to speak “Of a mayor”. Especially since the term mayor is epicene, that is to say that it can be used as it is, in the feminine or in the masculine. An opinion shared by Michel Becquembois, editor-in-chief of Release responsible for editing: “In the language, there is the rule and then there is the usage. You can’t write “mayoress” in the newspaper when very few people use it. “ Before recognizing: “Sometimes words end up being needed.” Prefect, who has long been put off, is today widely accepted, while the author, still perceived as very militant a few years ago, continues quietly in our everyday language.