25 May 2007

« Vous » — making a comeback?

There's been a lot of talk on the news lately about vouvoiement vs. tutoiement — the formal French pronoun vous vs. the more familiar tu, either of which can be used to say "you" to someone. Roughly, you say vous to strangers and people of greater age or authority compared to you, and you say tu to friends, family, children, and animals.

The new minister of education under President Sarkozy is known to favor a return to the use of vous by teachers to address their students starting in the equivalent of the first grade. In nursery school, according to a May 20 article in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, it is normal for teachers to address their pupils as tu, because there is a certain amount of affection between teacher and pupil. But most students learn to say vous to their teachers while they are in primary school and make the transition from pupil to student.

Some teachers continue to say tu to their students into high school, however. Those like the minister of education who would prefer that teachers always address their students as vous say it's a question of respect. But those who disagree say that's a smokescreen — there's nothing disrespectful about a teacher addressing a student as tu, says the national secretary of one of the big teacher's unions.

One sociologist, Jean-Pierre Le Goff, proposes banishing tu from the schools starting in first grade. He says the pronouns of address should be used "symmetrically" — students should say vous to their teacher, and teachers should say vous to the student.

The article cites the case of a private school in the Lot-et-Garonne department (southwestern France) which teaches 6th grade through graduation. Students and teachers are required to address each other as vous, and the students wear uniforms. If a student addresses a teacher as tu, he or she is punished. The student might have to sweep the classroom, for example.

An article in the next day's Le Figaro newspaper says that the new education minister believes that vouvoiement of teachers by students is indispensable, but he has no plan to make it compulsory for the time being. He says he would prefer that teachers say vous to students as well.

I don't know what percentage of teachers make a habit of saying tu to their students. Maybe you know...

Cueillez (cueille ?) dès aujourd'hui les roses de la vie...
In other words, stop and smell the roses... today.

On another front, the Figaro reports that the new president's first cabinet meeting broke ground in a couple of interesting ways. Nicolas Sarkozy announced that an "informal debate" on a current issue would take place at each week's cabinet meeting.

For as long as anyone can remember, Le Figaro says, cabinet meetings have been divided into three parts: (A) a review of proposed laws and executive decrees; (B) nominations and personnel matters; and (C) announcements by the different ministers. Now there will be a part (D) — D for debate or discussion on a topic chosen by the president.

The informal debate at last week's cabinet meeting concerned the whole question of overtime work and pay, which is important and controversial since the French government imposed the 35-hour work week a few years ago. Some of the new ministers and sub-ministers said they were thrilled to be able to express their opinions for the first time. "For the first time, there is a real dialog" which is "dynamic" and "energetic," and there's a spirit of teamwork, some of them said.

Sarkozy and his staff apparently cautioned the members of the cabinet to be careful to make sure they have something intelligent to say during these informal debates, and the president asked them not to use the time simply to ask for more resources and leeway for their ministries and departments. "What is interesting," said one of Sarkozy's spokespeople, "is to have an exchange of views on the fundamentals and the principles of an issue, so that each minister won't just be taking positions on matters that concern her or him most directly."

Meanwhile, Sarkozy plans to further relax government protocol. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, had taken the step of no longer requiring that the prime minister accompany him to the airport each time he starts an official trip and meet him at the airport when he flies back to Paris.

Sarkozy decided to continue this direction and set the example by actually calling some of the new ministers by their first name during their meeting. But, the Figaro article points out, he refrained from addressing any of them with the familiar tu, and all of them said vous to him and addressed him as Monsieur le Président.

Millepertuis or Saint John's Wort grows wild along our side fence

On radio and TV shows this week, I heard commentators and satirists remark several times on the fact that former President Chirac and his wife Bernadette have always addressed each other as vous, at least in public. One commentator wondered out loud if they really resisted calling each other tu in the boudoir.

Callie prefers to be called tu and toi, despite her pedigree

Another radio chronicler talked about a Figaro article that I can't find and that told the story of a man, a "commoner," who had married a woman of the old nobility, a countess. He opined that he himself thought it was better for parents to say vous to their children because it would teach them respect and responsibility.

The radio personality said he figured those were the kind of parents who kissed their children once on the cheek when they were newborns and once again when they succeeded in getting their master's degree at the university. They wouldn't waste affection on kids. "You'd think that man was of the nobility himself," the commentator said, "because intelligence like his is usually the result of centuries of inbreeding."


  1. I'm glad English doesn't give us the tu-vous dilemma. I'm for teaching children respect and responsibility, but wonder if simply changing a word will do that work. We have to earn kid's respect and that's not easy.

    I'll be tutoyer la belle Callie when I meet her, but the real question is does she call you Vous, mon Alpha?

  2. Evelyn, I think Callie will be happy if you say tu to her, but don't expect her to know what pronoun to answer with! You can speak to her in English, actually — we do, mostly.

  3. Interesting post. You seem to make a distinction between pupil and student. Can you explain?

  4. Isn't a pupil a young student? When you get to high school or even middle school, you're no longer a pupil but become a student. And on into university. Isn't pupil about the same as schoolchild?

    In French you have écoliers who go to an école ("enfants qui fréquentent l'école primaire, les petites classes..." according to the Robert dictionary), élèves who are a little older and gradually become lycéens, and then étudiants at the university.

  5. Actually, the old "thou" form still exists in some English regions. There's an old Yorkshire story about a young lad who started using "tha" to the older men when he got an adult job, and was firmly told "Tha tha's them as tha's thee, and not afore".

  6. When I started teaching, I started out using 'vous' when exceptionally addressing my 11 to 16 years old students. And one of my classes sent their délégué to ask me if I could address them as 'tu'.
    They claimed that 'vous' sounded like I didn't like them.
    I felt, when I was young that if put a distance between us, which was a good thing.
    But since they asked, I tried the 'tu' and never went back to 'vous' afterwards.
    I do not think that respect is only a matter of words. If it were that simple, there would be no more problems ;)
    I think that our govt think they can settle every problem with a slogan. Like Travailler plus pour gagner plus...
    What about people who can't find a job? ;)

  7. My 14 year old daughter, currently in a French school, says she prefers when her teachers address the students as "vous"..."it makes me feel like they respect me." She says some teachers say "tu" and some say "vous."

    But the students always, always, always say "vous"; there is no choice in that matter.

    Meilleurs voeux!!


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