The format and content of letters in France are somewhat different than in English countries. It is important to be aware of these differences in order to avoid appearing not only ignorant, but also (inadvertently) rude. Following are the basic conventions.
For other information on the French language and conventions, click on French Language.
The position of the sender's address and recipient's address is different from the English norm (in fact, the exact reverse of the positions used in most English speaking countries). Your name and address should be in the top-left corner and the recipient's name and address should be underneath on the right hand side. In the case of pre-printed stationary or business stationary this rule is not always followed, but these positions are the norm for letters on a plain sheet of paper. Normally the addresses will not have commas at the ends of lines. See Sample letter 1.
Your name should be without title (David Smith, not Mr. David Smith). However, the person you are addressing the letter to should have his title (Monsieur Pierre Dubois, or in the case of certain professions Maître Pierre Dubois). The full title of the addressee should be used (Monsieur Pierre Dubois, not M. Pierre Dubois) on the letter, although abbreviations are acceptable on the envelope if there is insufficient room. See Sample letter 1.
If the addressee has a title (in a business for instance), this should be placed on the line after his full name. See Sample letter 2.
In some cases, the sender's name will be reversed and have the surname in capitals (SMITH David rather than David Smith). Note that in this case (unlike the English norm) there is no comma between the surname and the first name (SMITH David rather than SMITH, David).
The date comes after the recipient's address, also on the right-hand side of the page. The day is preceded by "Le" and the names of months are not capitalized (see Sample letter 2). In less formal letters the date can be written as numerals; in this case it is in the format day-month-year rather than month-day-year (see Sample letter 1).
The greetings appears on the left side (as in English letters) and are as follows:
- to a man: Monsieur
- to a woman: Madame (if married) or Mademoiselle (if very young and unmarried)
- if you don't know if it is a man or a woman: Madame, Monsieur, Messieurs
- for certain professions (e.g. lawyer, notaire): Maître
- for certain official certificates: À qui de droit (to whom it may concern)
The use of a person's name is normally reserved for less formal letters (e.g. Cher Monsieur Dubois or Chère Madame Dubois). Between friends and family one would use first names (e.g. Cher Pierre).
In all cases, the greeting is followed by a comma. See Sample letter 1 and Sample letter 2.
The letter closing is perhaps the most (or even only) complex part of a French letter. As this is a fairly substantial topic on it's own, a dedicated page is provided at Letter closings.
The return address is frequently put on the back of the envelope, under Expediteur (French for 'sender'). If put on the front, it is normal practice to make an 'x' over the address. The post office claims that if this is not done, the sending address and return address may be confused by their staff.
Set of Sample Letters