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in France, feminists say the scandal involving former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has forced the country to confront longstanding sexism.

As Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris, activists are taking on what they see as one of the most entrenched barriers to gender equality in France, the word mademoiselle.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: In France, when you fill out a form - whether it's a job application or a parking citation - if you're a woman, you have to choose between madame or mademoiselle. Too bad if you feel your marital status is nobody's business, there's simply no French equivalent of Ms. Now, French feminists are launching a campaign to change that.

Marie Noelle Bas, president of the feminist group Watchdog, says the word Mademoiselle is no longer relevant.

MARIE: In old days, women went from the domination of their father to the domination of their husband. Then they were mademoiselle when they were girls and they were madame when they were married. For the men there is no two states. Only monsieur from the youth to the elder.

BEARDSLEY: Mademoiselle, say feminists, separates women into two categories in a manner men aren't subjected to. The corresponding title for males, damoiseau, which roughly translates as a virgin squire, went out with the Middle Ages. Feminists say employing the generic madame, like monsieur, will create the same rules for both genders. They also claim leaving out mademoiselle will cut down on opportunities for discrimination and harassment.

Bas says France is way behind its neighbors. The Scandinavians no longer delineate between married and unmarried women and the Germans have dropped Fraulein. The campaigners say even the Spanish have struck Senorita from official forms. A new website lets users sign a petition and offers form letters that can be sent to companies and lawmakers to demand that the title mademoiselle be officially discarded.

Sitting at an outdoor cafe enjoying an espresso, Thalia Breton, from the organization Dare Feminism, says the climate is right to launch the assault on mademoiselle.

THALIA BRETON: (Through Translator) People have really woken up about inequalities and sexism since the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair. And we think these issues will be a part of the presidential debate leading up to next May's election.

BEARDSLEY: Though a few sociologists, writers and philosophers have signed on to the cause, the issue isn't being widely discussed. Judging from first reactions on the street, the feminists have their work cut out for them. Forty-five-year-old Monique Wlazlo is coming out of a shop where she has just completed a form to get a new cell phone. She calls the campaign paranoid.

MONIQUE WLAZLO: (Through Translator) As long as no one calls me monsieur, I'm fine. Anyway, we naturally refer to an older, unmarried woman as madame. And if you're married but don't look your age, you might get called mademoiselle. It's flattering one way and less so the other, but that's life.

BEARDSLEY: Simon de Beauvoir's seminal feminist work, "The Second Sex," was published 60 years ago. Even so, says Marie-Noelle Bas, French women have integrated the masculine domination of French society into their very souls.

BAS: It seems normal to them that the men are more important than them.

BEARDSLEY: And aside from that, says Bas, mademoiselle isn't even a compliment.

BAS: Madame, for madame, oiselle. Oiselle in French is the feminine for oiseau. And in ancient French that means virgin, that means stupid. That means somebody who needs to be married.

BEARDSLEY: Mademoiselle is only a word, says Bas. But she says it's important to fight sexist words and images because they create the climate of inequality between men and women that can lead to violence.

Feminist Breton sums it up this way: If you were to call a man damoiseau he would laugh in your face. Mademoiselle, she says, is just as ridiculous.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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