Email is a fact of life.
It’s almost an understatement to say that it has replaced handwritten letters.
In fact, email itself has morphed from a cyber version of formal letters into SMS-speak, attachments, memos and basically anything that was once written on paper.
And yet you wouldn’t send a message with informal language to your boss. Or maybe you would!
The point is, there’s a right way and a wrong way to write an email. But it’s not always so obvious what those ways are.
This is all the more true in France, where the art of formal French correspondence is highly valued.
But first, let’s have a brief look at the history of email in France.
The Adoption of Email in France
We probably like to think that tech is inherently Anglophone, and that the French were doing their own peculiar thing before computers reached their shores. But France made surprising contributions to the development of email.
Long before US households set up email accounts through junk mail AOL diskettes, the French had a flourishing “internet” known as the Minitel, complete with an electronic message service. Minitel, or Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique (roughly, “interactive medium by digitization of telephone information”—say that five times fast!), originally conceived as an alternative to paper phone directories, came to include news, home shopping, yellow pages, train schedules, banking, dating and of course messagerie (electronic messaging).
In fact, that Minitel could even handle messagerie instantanée (instant messaging) was discovered by accident in the early ’80s. In 1981, a platform called Gretel offering services like weather, horoscopes, TV guides and a “letter box” was formed, but people weren’t skilled in using it, so Gretel created a way to send informative messages to users to help them. Legend has it that a child discovered the admin password and used Gretel to send his own instant messages. Gretel saw that this was popular, and the rest was history.
Other services sprung up as well, like theme-based salons de discussion (chat rooms) and the ever popular Minitel Rose for singles. See Libération and France24 for more detailed accounts of Minitel’s early days.
Email today: Popular service providers
The Internet as we know it eventually won out over Minitel, and France has several service and webmail providers today. Some of the top email providers in France are Orange (formerly France Télécom), Gmail, Outlook, SFR and Yahoo. Suffice it to say that the French are now enthusiastic email writers.
Writing a French Email
French emails are structured similarly to American emails, with addresses, content in space-separated paragraphs, salutations and contact info.
The practice of writing good emails in France is called nétiquette.
Although we’re often taught that business correspondence is rigid in France, we shouldn’t think of the French as “by the book” drones. Yes, I said formal correspondence is highly valued by the French, but in practice, they’re just as busy as us, and they don’t always have time to write formal letters.
I’ve often sent professional letters in French diligently remembering my contact info, formal greeting and closing salutation, only to get informal, one-sentence messages in response.
Basically, the important thing to remember is this: Don’t do in a French email what you wouldn’t do in an English one. For example, that could include writing in all caps, using slang, etc. That said, I suggest following the guidelines below, even if your correspondent doesn’t do likewise, at least until the conversation gets up and running.
Tutoyer vs. vouvoyer and why it’s important
In France, you address people in the second person using either tu (tutoyer) or vous (vouvoyer). Using tu implies intimacy and informality, whereas vous is more formal. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly when to use tu or vous; you have to use judgement. I’ve been in situations where I used vous only to be told to use tu. Note, however, that second person plural is always vous.
Although tutoiement (use of tu) is becoming more common in France, in formal emails, it’s best to err on the side of caution and use vous, at least until told otherwise, especially if you’re addressing someone older, a supervisor or someone you just met.
This can be a bit difficult to get used to as a non-native speaker, but the French videos on FluentU can help with that.
You can also search for specific words like vous and tu for quick examples of how native speakers use them in different contexts. For example, compare the use of the word vous in this conversation between strangers with the use of the word tu in this silly game played by a mother and daughter.
Give it a try with the full video library and all the learning features for free with a FluentU trial.
The French header and subject
A French en-tête (header) begins with the sender’s coordonnées (contact info):
Prénom (first name) NOM (last name, usually in caps)
Intitulé du poste (job title)
This is followed by, farther down on the other side of the page, the recipient’s info:
À l’attention de (to the attention of) Monsieur/Madame LAST NAME
Nom de la compagnie (company name)
The formule d’appel (roughly, “formal greeting”)
You start your email with a formule d’appel (formal salutation). This can be as simple as “Madame,” or “Monsieur,” if the recipient doesn’t know you, or “Cher Monsieur,/Chère Madame,” (“Dear Sir,/Dear Madam,”) if the recipient knows you.
If you’re sending the letter to, say, two people, you can say “Madame, Monsieur,” (“Madam, Sir,”). Avoid using Mademoiselle (Miss/Ms.), because the marital situation of your recipient is irrelevant.
If you know the job title of the recipient, all the better. You can say, for example, “Madame la Directrice,” (“Madam Director,”) or “Monsieur le Professeur,” (“Professor,”), or even “Monsieur le Président de la République,” (“Mr. President,”).
Some special cases:
- “Maître,” (“Master,” although we say “Esquire,”) if you’re writing to a lawyer.
- “Docteur,” for a doctor.
- “Mon Général/Colonel/Commandant/etc.,” (“My general, etc.,”—here we might say “Sir,” or just “General,”) for an officer.
Remember to capitalize the formule d’appel and to end it with a comma.
Explaining the purpose of your email
Following the formule d’appel, get to the point:
“Suite à notre entretien du 4 Octobre…” (“Following up on our interview on October 4th…”)
“J’ai bien reçu votre courrier du 17 Novembre…” (“I received your mail from November 17th…”)
“Je vous propose ma candidature pour le poste…” (“I propose my candidacy for the position…”)
You get the idea. You’re immediately explaining the purpose of your letter. “À la recherche d’un emploi” provides more detailed information about writing letters in French.
Giving your contact information
Following the body of the letter but before the closing remarks, I usually say something like…
“Vous pouvez me rejoindre au tel: 555-555-5555”
“Vous pouvez me rejoindre à: email@example.com”
(“You can reach me at…”)
…to stress that I can and want to be contacted, even if this information is in my header.
Don’t forget a formule de politesse (salutation)
That’s right. We begin an email with a formule, and we end it with one! The formule de politesse ends your email with a tone of respect and consideration. Now is not the time to be creative. There’s a definite formula to follow:
“Je vous prie d’agréer, Madame la Directrice, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.”
Here, I’m asking the (female) director to accept (not agree with) my “distinguished sentiments.” So basically it’s request, recipient + job title, proof of respect.
I could also say “Veuillez agréer” (“Please accept”), but that’s more of a commanding tone. There’s a reason why it’s called a formule; its structure is set in stone. Several good examples can be found here.
So contrary to what I said earlier, the formule de politesse is one way in which French and American email differ. Obviously you don’t need to do this for, say, letters to your family or friends, in which case you could just say any of the following:
- “Je t’embrasse” (“Love”—not a literal translation),
- “Bisous” (“Kisses”),
- “Sincèrement” (“Sincerely”),
- “Cordialement” (“Cordially”),
Don’t forget your signature at the end.
When I realized all my formal French emails would be cast from the same mold, I wrote up a template including space for the header, contact info, formal greeting and a pre-packaged formule de politesse. That way I could just plug in new info and change the actual content. You can call that cheating, but it saves time!
More Email and Letter Writing Vocab
Maybe the best benefit of analyzing French emails is learning a new set of vocab. Like in other areas of informatique (IT/computer science), emails constitute a battleground of imposed English words fighting with homegrown alternatives. By the way, if you haven’t done so, try setting your webmail or email client to French settings—you’ll subconsciously memorize all of this vocab!
Technical email vocab
Courrier électronique / email / mél / courriel (masculine) — email
Envoyer — to send
Supprimer — to delete
Annuler — to cancel
Spam / pourriel / courrier indésirable (masculine) — spam
Adresse électronique (feminine) / email / courriel — email address
Boîte de réception (feminine) — inbox
Boîte d’envoi (feminine) — outbox
Brouillon (masculine) — draft
Imprimer — to print
Enregistrer — to save
Ci-joint — attached
Télécharger — to download
Mettre en ligne / télécharger — to upload
General letter writing vocab
Bas de page (masculine) — footer
Marge (feminine) — margin
Paragraphe (masculine) — paragraph
Orthographe (feminine) — spelling
Phrase (feminine) — sentence
Mise en page (feminine) — page layout
Interligne (feminine) — spacing
Interligne double (feminine) — double spacing
Interligne simple (feminine) — single spacing
Police (feminine) — font
Learning how the French write emails is just one more way you can contextualize your French skills.
Understanding emails gives you practice in technical vocab, composing advanced sentences and letter writing in general.
If you have a French penpal, now you can impress them with your correspondence skills!
And one more thing...
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