How to write a formal letter in French
Published on May 7, 2020 / Updated on January 8, 2024
Do you want to accompany your CV with a letter, or claim a refund for a product and you don’t know how to write a letter in French? Yes, you will have to go through the delicate task of writing a formal letter. And when it comes to administration and formal written contacts, the French have very strict (and somewhat rigid) rules. Here are the codes to respect, to make sure your letter will be read all the way through!
The mail you write should have the shape of an official letter with a French format. That is, even from a distance or blurred, you should be able to recognise the different parts of the formal letter.
At the top left, you will write your first name, last name, then your address below and finally your telephone number and email address.
Then, at the top right, you should write the name and contact details of the addressee.
When you’ve finished this, you’ll still have two things to do to get that formal silhouette: below your contact details, you’ll have to write “objet” (subject) and summarise in a non-verbal sentence the reason why you want to write. And finally, you will only have to write on the next line, but on the right: the place and date you write, like this:
The first thing you need to know is how to address the letter in French. This part is called the “formule d’appel” (calling card). If you know the name of the person you are addressing, you can begin your letter by writing in the centre: M. Dupont or Mme Martin. So, “Monsieur” or “Madame” followed by the last name of the person you are writing to.
If you don’t know, as is often the case when you send your CV or a complaint to an after-sales service, just write, still in the centre of the letter: “Madame, Monsieur,”.
But if you are addressing a person with a high professional position, it is absolutely necessary to mention this and write: “Monsieur le Ministre”, “Madame la Présidente”.
Then, in what is called le corps de la lettre (“the body of the letter”), you must explain in the first paragraph the context of your letter or your claim, for example, what happened in order for you to write this letter.
After you have explained why you want to write, you can skip a line and start a new paragraph by clearly stating your request.
As you will have noticed, it is unthinkable to write a letter in French and to use anything other than “vous”. We will keep the “tu” for texting family or friends, and the “vous” remains the only way to address your recipient in a letter.
If you have a problem with a product or service (such as a telephone service) that doesn’t conform to what was sold, you can even make threats, such as:
This is the part that is called the formule de politesse (“greeting”). Yes, it’s a bit weird, even if you just threatened them, you have to end with a polite greeting!
Before you do that, you have to be open to dialogue and you can add a sentence such as:
And then you must absolutely end with an extremely long but coded polite sentence:
All that remains is for you to sign at the bottom right-hand corner of the sheet, possibly with your initials or the initial of your first name and your surname in full. Ideally, your letter should not exceed one side of paper.
You are now ready to write letters in French! But don’t torture yourself too much while writing this letter. They say that your addressee will only give it an average of 6 seconds of attention! Oh la la!