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In France, the following are two of the main ways people get promoted in academic positions:

  1. Maître de Conférences (assistant professor whose responsibilities include teaching as well as research) -> professeur (professor)

and

  1. Chargé de recherche (in charge of research) -> Directeur de recherche (director of research).

Note that in the second sequence of academic promotions, one doesn't have to teach and the positions are mostly dedicated to research (although one can opt to teach if s/he wants to).

My question is: while applying to a position (postdoc/permanent) in the team of a chargé de recherche where s/he is the PI of the project, should one address her/him as a professor ("Prof."), say in the cover letter? It's technically incorrect it seems, but perhaps no harm is done because their positions are equivalent to those of professors anyway.

I'd like to know the viewpoint(s) of someone(s) who's familiar with the French system!

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    If you're going to communicate in English, go for "Dear Prof. X", if it's in French, go for "Monsieur" or "Madame". By the way, if you communicate with a UK prof, you would write "Dear Prof. X" only if they are literally a full professor, otherwise it goes down to "Dear Dr X" or "Dear Mr". In the US I noticed T.V. anchors addressing Nobel prize winners as "Dr X" rather than "Professor X", because for some the perception is that Dr is higher. But not in the UK. Table manners also differ quite a bit (hands on top in France, hands on lap in the UK, no rule in the US). Ah ah.
    – PatrickT
    Mar 3, 2021 at 5:19
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    This depends upon your definition of academic position. Is CEA -my employer- an academic organization? Mar 3, 2021 at 5:48
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    I think you should clarify what the language of the communication that you are talking about is.
    – Carsten S
    Mar 3, 2021 at 10:52
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    You could send me an email (in French) to basile@starynkevitch.net Mar 3, 2021 at 20:38
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    I didn't got any email. Mention the URL of your question Mar 4, 2021 at 17:49

3 Answers 3

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French academia is not big on titles. Whether it's by students, colleagues, or the administration, people are rarely if ever addressed by their titles. I'm a "maître de conférences" myself, and nobody addresses me as anything other than "Monsieur", and my colleagues of another gender are addressed as "Madame". That's it, no fluff, no "Prof Dr", no "Maître" -- which wouldn't be appropriate as this is how you address attorneys and notaries, not even "Dr".

If you want to err on the side of the formality, which is perhaps better until you know more about the person in question and how they like to be addressed, you can call them "Prof". It's inaccurate, yes, but we are used to the outside world wanting to impose American title norms on us. You can take comfort in the fact that many institutions have "research professors", so a chargé de recherches could be viewed as a "junior/associate research professor", that you would address as "Prof", indeed.

Personally I wouldn't care if a foreign applicant started an email with "Dear Mr. XYZ" (or Ms. as appropriate), and I doubt (m)any of my colleagues would. But I hesitate to give this advice, as it's possible that in some French academic subcultures some people give more importance to titles. I'm thinking of law and medicine, especially.

However, do not ever address someone as "Dear Chargé de recherches Dupont" or "Dear CR Dupont". That's just not used as a salutation, even if it's the title used by that person on their website.

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    There is an American joke: Call me anything you like, but call me MISTER. It leads to funny results. Not all printable.
    – Buffy
    Mar 2, 2021 at 16:09
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    I believe it was Pratchett who observed that such distinctions are most important to those near the bottom of the ladder.
    – Peter Wone
    Mar 3, 2021 at 4:09
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    I'd like to add that (i) using Prof rather than Professeur(e) would be considered familiar or rude by most recipients, as "le prof" is a item used by students and others outside the professor's hearing and (ii) the only domain where Professeur keeps being used as a title is in medicine, as in "Laurence Ferrari a interviewé le professeur Didier Raoult"... Mar 3, 2021 at 6:48
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    @PeterWone With respect, Sir Terry probably never met a Prof. Dr. Dr. at a German Uni. I'd also say that he probably never met the Queen, but, uuh… Mar 3, 2021 at 8:34
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    @KonradRudolph -- I deserve this. Dry, understated humour is my own métier. Live by the sword...
    – Peter Wone
    Mar 4, 2021 at 2:04
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As stated in a previous answer, the French academia does not use any title. The terms like "maître de conférences", "professeur des universités" are just the position you hold but not the title you have.

If you write an email in French, the best way is to start by "Bonjour" or "Bonjour Monsieur, "Bonjour Madame". To be honest, since I am not a Ph.D. student anymore, I avoid using "Monsieur" or "Madame" because I think it can put a sort of hierarchy in the relationship. In most cases, you will receive an email starting by only "Bonjour". By the way, in the French system, it is not unusual to start an email by "Bonjour".

In some cases, the person you contact can just call you by your first name "Bonjour X" and use "vous" which is the formal "you" in French. It is also very usual to call somebody by his/her first name and use the formal "vous". Then, it can become weird if somebody calls you by your first name and you call him/her Madame/Monsieur.

I just use Monsieur/Madame part for formal administration-related emails. The same story for the hierarchy applies because when the administration contacts you, the most cases, the email you receive is very formal and uses "Madame/Monsieur". Then, to avoid any hierarchic context, maybe it is better to start this kind of mail by "Madame/Monsieur".

If you write your email in English, then you can just call Dear Professor X. It is not strange to receive this kind of email. You can use the same international norms used in the academia.

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  • When you say "call you by your name", do you mean first or last name?
    – henning
    Mar 3, 2021 at 10:29
  • I mean the first name. It is very common in the French system. Mar 3, 2021 at 11:01
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    Thanks. Please have a look at my edits.
    – henning
    Mar 3, 2021 at 11:03
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    Then, it can become weird if somebody calls you by your first name and you call him/her Madame/Monsieur. Weird but not unheard of. When I met, as a grown up adult, my teacher from primary school, he called me by my first name and tu and I of course went for "Monsieur" and vous :) He was an old school teacher and an old man at that time. OP: the tu/vous relationship usually stops at high school level (everyone is a vous) and then turns into tu for both parties at the same time.
    – WoJ
    Mar 3, 2021 at 15:07
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Use whatever title they use on their website. E.g.,

  • Use Dr Alpha Bravo or Professor Alpha Bravo, if they appear.

When titles aren't used, e.g.,

  • Their website uses Alpha Bravo, PhD, you can rightly use Dr Alpha Bravo, but may favour Alpha Bravo, since they're discrete about their title.

When no titles are used, you're probably safe with their name, e.g., Alpha Bravo. (Although, you may like to google their name, find and use the title that appears in the press.)

Don't assume an academic adopts national conventions/stereotypes, especially a non-native.

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    I had to downvote because that is not the French way at all, sorry.
    – PatrickT
    Mar 3, 2021 at 5:11
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    @PatrickT Using a title that someone uses themselves isn't the French way?
    – user2768
    Mar 3, 2021 at 8:07
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    As pointed out by user135767 in their answer, no, you wouldn't. Note that you wouldn't address the queen of England by the title on her website, "Dear Queen of England" would be "Madam" instead, so it's not just in France.
    – PatrickT
    Mar 3, 2021 at 8:42
  • @PatrickT I've edited for clarity. (Dignitaries are irrelevant, they don't maintain websites, academics do, when they have them.)
    – user2768
    Mar 3, 2021 at 9:11
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    @PatrickT: while I completely agree with you on the French part, I think that for HMQ it would rather be "Your Majesty". I find these titles completely ridiculous BTW, including our "Maître" when talking to a lawyer....
    – WoJ
    Mar 3, 2021 at 15:10

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