When I was learning French in school, writing letters was one of the most intimidating things we covered. There were so many formules de politesse (polite phrases and salutations) and all of them seemed absolutely required to be included in any formal or business correspondence.
Then, I came to France and found that letter (and now email) writing in French was actually a lot simpler than I’d been led to believe. I just had to be familiar with some key phrases and remember the purpose of letters and emails in the first place: to communicate.
Let’s look at what you really need to know about writing letters and emails in French.
The two rules of writing letters and emails in French
I could describe what it was like to come to France and have to write and read letters and emails of all sorts, entirely in French. I could talk about the way emails began to influence letter-writing in several ways. But that would make this a veeeery long article.
So, let’s break it down to two simple things you must remember:
1. Email and text messaging have influenced the rules of French business and formal correspondence
There will still be some situations where you will have to compose an old-fashioned, super-stuffy letter in French, maybe. But these situations are very rare.
Instead, over the past twenty years or so, I’ve seen an evolution of most French formal and business correspondence. While there will always be at least a few formules de politesse that French people will include (and expect) in professional and formal letters and emails, things have become a lot less formal in general.
Nowadays, for instance, that clunky ending formula Veuillez agréer…à mes salutations distinguées has become somewhat of a rarity. Additionally, some companies have opted to eschew formal salutations like Madame, Monsieur, (To Whom It May Concern) for the much more relaxed Bonjour, to seem more approachable.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be polite – French people are notoriously polite. But you can do it in a more relaxed way. So don’t worry if you don’t include a ton of formules de politesse in your email or letter, and don’t expect to receive correspondence peppered with them. (Although in my experience, you should ALWAYS include Cordialement as a sign-off, even in only somewhat formal situations.)
Again, there are exceptions and it’s never a bad thing to veer on the side of caution. But overall, French correspondence is a bit more relaxed than you might expect.
2. Remember your intention
The main goal of a letter or email is to communicate. Whether that’s asking a question, sharing information, or requesting a service, the most important thing is to convey what you mean in a clear way. The formules de politesse won’t let you do this; they’re just there to show your respect and politeness.
So make sure, first and foremost, that your French letter or email is easy for your correspondent to understand. Then check to make sure of the politeness basics:
- Did you open with a polite greeting that matches the gender and number of the person or people you’re addressing?
- If necessary, did you thank them?
- Did you make your request politely?
- Did you sign off with a polite closing (usually Cordialement)?
If you’ve done all these things, in most cases that’s all you need to worry about. Always focus on making sure your correspondent understands what you need to get across. A letter full of empty, polite phrases and no information is of no use to anyone.
Essential phrases for writing a formal or business French letter or email
There are many formules de politesse – and variations of them – that you might find if you look up “How to write a letter in French” online. But in my experience, the ones I’m including here are the ones you really need to know, either because you’ll use them a lot or because you’ll come across them often.
But first off, make sure you know how to write the date in French. If you’re writing a formal or business letter (not email), don’t forget to include the date, on the top right of the page above the body of the letter.
One more thing: The exact way to say and spell “email” in French is incredibly varied. The strictly Francophone word is un courriel, but this is rarely used. You will also see the Anglophone-influenced un e-mail or sometimes un é-mail from time to time. But the two most frequent ways I see this word in most formal, professional, and informal correspondence is either un mail or un mél.
Okay, now onto the list….
Essential phrases to start a formal letter in French
Madame, Monsieur – To Whom It May Concern.
As in English, this is used if you don’t know the gender(s) or name(s) of the person or people you’re writing to. Otherwise, use one of these:
- Madame [Last name]
- Monsieur [Last name]
These formal greetings are used in lieu of Madame, Monsieur if you are absolutely certain of the gender, number, and/or last name of the person or people you’re writing to.
For example, when I write an email or note to my son’s school principal, because I know her gender and last name, I would begin my message: Madame Dupont,
Other important phrases to include in a business letter
Je vous écris pour
I’m writing to/I’m writing in order to
Example: Je vous écris pour résilier mon abonnement. (I’m writing to cancel my subscription.)
Suite à votre lettre/votre message/notre dernière conversation/votre courriel/votre mél
Following up on/Regarding your letter/message/our last conversation/your email
This could also be translated as “As per”, although to my knowledge it doesn’t have the subtly rude connotation that it’s sometimes given in English.
Example: Suite à votre lettre, je vous confirme la résiliation de votre abonnement. (Following your letter, I confirm that your subscription has been cancelled.)
Je vous prie de…
I humbly request that you…
Although you may write this phrase, it’s more commonly used by companies or anyone who would be making a demand or request. It’s often used with the phrase bien vouloir to form the ultra-polite mega phrase Je vous prie de bien vouloir…, which roughly translates to “I humbly request that you kindly oblige by…”
Example: Je vous prie de lire le contrat ci-joint. (I humbly request that you read the enclosed contract.)
enclosed or attached. (Note that this must agree with the word it’s referring to.)
You may also see something like:
Please find attached/enclosed…
Example: Veuillez trouver ci-jointe une photocopie de mon passeport. (Please find attached a photocopy of my passport.)
Merci de bien vouloir
Please have the kindness to…/Please be so kind as to…
This is another ultra-polite phrase, but there is a sense of authority behind it. There really isn’t a choice here; you have to do what’s asked.
Example: Merci de bien vouloir remplir les documents ci-joints. (Please be so kind as to fill out the enclosed documents.)
Je vous remercie de/Merci pour…
I thank you for/Thank you for….
These phrases, especially the first one, are formal to general register. You can write Merci pour in a message to a friend as well as in a somewhat formal email or letter. Je vous remercie is a bit more formal.
Example : Je vous remercie de votre lettre. (I thank you for your letter.)
Merci de ta compréhension/Merci de votre compréhension
Thank you for understanding./I appreciate your understanding.
This can be used for personal matters, or in a more general way, a bit like “We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Example: Nous vous informons que notre bureau sera ferme la semaine prochaine. Merci de votre compréhension. (We kindly inform you that our office will be closed next week. We appreciate your understanding.)
donner suite à (dans les plus brefs délais)
to respond/to follow up on something (as quickly as possible)
Example: Merci pour votre message. Nous y donnerons suite dans les plus brefs délais. (Thank you for your message. We will reply to it as quickly as possible.)
N’hésitez pas à me contacter pour tout renseignement complémentaire
If you need additional information, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
This is an extremely common statement to make towards the end of a formal or business letter or email (depending on the context, of course).
This is an extremely polite way to ask someone to do something and is commonly found in business correspondence or instructions.
Example: Veuillez trouver ci-joints les documents demandés. (Please find attached the documents you requested.)
You’ll also see it tied to an extremely formal sign-off….
Veuillez agréer, ___, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées
Please accept my sincerest salutations.
This very formal closing statement or sign-off has many, many variations.
The phrase has to be completed with the title you used in the greeting of your letter. So for instance, if I addressed the person I was writing to as “Madame Dupont” at the start of the letter, I would write:
Veuillez agréer, Madame Dupont, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées
Most French letters and emails today won’t use this formula, opting to simply go to the all-purpose closing Cordialement instead. But you will still find it or one of its variants from time to time, and you’ll need to write it if you’re being ultra-polite/groveling/applying for a job in French.
Merci par avance
Thanks in advance.
This is a bit of a loaded phrase because it implies certainty that whatever is being requested will get done. Personally, I use it for things like routine procedures that the person I’m writing to would be expected to do.
Example: Veuillez trouver ci-joint la confirmation de ma demande de renouvellement d’abonnement. Merci par avance. (Please find attached the confirmation of my renewal request. Thanks in advance.)
How to end a formal French letter
Cordialement – Sincerely/Regards/Best Regards/Respectfully
This is the formal and business French letter or email sign-off par excellence. Even extremely formal correspondence may include it (after an extremely formal closing statement). And on the other hand, it’s often used in friendly yet somewhat formal correspondence between people in everyday life matters, as well.
For instance, if you’re contacting someone about something they’re selling online, you’ll use it and they’ll use it to close at least your initial messages. It’s also used in text messages of this kind, often abbreviated as Cdlmt or sometimes cdlt or cdt. It’s so common that there’s even some backlash against it.
If you or your correspondent really want(s) to emphasize your good will, Bien can be added to the beginning: Bien Cordialement,
Three real-life examples of French formal letters and emails
Here are a few short formal or professional French letters and emails I’ve received recently (with specific names and references removed or replaced).
You’ll notice that none of them contain every single essential or word or phrase I’ve listed above. To me, this is the best way to show you not to panic. A letter or email in French is the same as it is in any other language; its primary goal is to communicate. It’s not just a patchwork of typical phrases, although you will still come across several of them in each example.
See which ones you find in these three messages:
I. An email regarding school registration
(Note: All names and other personal information have been removed/replaced):
Je vous envoie un message de la part de Mme Dupont concernant l’inscription pour le CP.
Cordialement, Laure Martin
II. An email from my son’s school principal
Votre enfant ira au CP l’an prochain et vous avez reçu de la Mairie le certificat d’inscription pour les écoles de secteur.
Je vous prie de bien vouloir remettre ce document à la maternelle 8, rue du Louvre où j’assurerai une permanence lundi 20 avril et mercredi 22 avril de 10h à 11h.
Prenez soin de vous et vos proches.
III. A registered letter from our building management company
This is a letter sent to my husband by our building management company (Syndic), calling for an annual meeting of our building board (again, all names and personal information have been removed or replaced):
Nous avons l’honneur de vous convoquer à l’Assemblée Générale de votre immeuble, qui se tiendra le :
VENDREDI 2 OCTOBRE 2020 à 18H00
Nous vous prions d’agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de nos sincères salutations.
Tips to write a formal French letter or email
I hope that this list of phrases and the idea that the most essential thing is to clearly communicate will make it easier for you to write a formal or business French letter or email.
If you still don’t feel confident, you may be able to find templates for certain letters by doing an online search for the phrase modèle de, followed by the type of letter or email you have to write – for instance: modèle de lettre de motivation (cover/job application letter template).
You can also ask Francophone friends or use online forums to see if your letter or email is written correctly. If you’re using a forum or talking to someone you don’t know well, of course be sure to leave out any specific personal information.
Keep in mind that in many cases — for instance if you’re sending a message to request information — the person on the other end just needs to understand you and understand that you’re being polite and respectful; if you make a few small errors, it’s not the end of the world. Don’t let your fear hold you back from asking for something important.
If it is holding you back, one thing I used to do was to start my letter or email with an explanation like:
Je m’excuse par avance pour d’éventuelles erreurs dans cette lettre/ce mél, le français n’est pas ma langue maternelle. (I apologize in advance for any possible errors in this letter/this email; French isn’t my native language.)
Informal French letter closings and openings
Writing a friendly email, card, or letter in French is a lot easier than writing a formal or professional one – after all, you’re communicating with people you know and probably are close to, so there’s less pressure and less formality required. Still, there are a few common things you may want to know how to say, and a few that should probably be included in your message, as well.
Here are the essential words and phrases for opening and closing informal French letters:
Cher(s)/Chère(s) – Dear
Keep in mind that this should agree with the number and gender of the person/people you’re writing to. Although this is a standard way to start a friendly letter or email in French, I’ve personally found that it’s a bit old-fashioned. People of older generations use it in cards or letters, but younger people tend to use greetings like Bonjour, Salut, or Coucou.
Bonjour/Salut/Coucou – Hello, Hi, Hi there
These greetings are more commonly used by French people in informal or friendly correspondence, especially people of younger generations. Check out our article on French greetings to learn more about the specific uses and connotations of each one.
Je vous/te remercie de/pour OR Merci pour (I thank you for/Thank you for).
As you might have guessed, Merci pour is the more informal, general way to thank someone, while Je te remercie de/pour is a bit more formal. I would use the latter, for instance, with a very old French acquaintance or relative.
Example: Merci pour ta carte. (Thanks for your card.) -I would write this to a friend. Or Je te remercie pour ta carte. (Thank you for your card.) – I would write this to an older French friend or acquaintance.
Passe le bonjour de ma part à – Say hi to ___ for me.
You may also see this written as Passe le bonjour or Passe-lui le bonjour , where the de ma part is understood.
Example: Passe le bonjour à toute ta famille.
Amitiés – Warm Regards/Kind Regards
This is a friendly yet still somewhat formal way to sign off in non-professional correspondence. You can use it with acquaintances or a group of friends, for example.
Bien à vous– Sincerely yours/Best Wishes
The literal translation of this sign-off is “Good [things] to you.” You can also use it in some friendly business correspondence. Apparently, it’s even more common in Belgian French than in the French spoken in France. Still, I encounter it quite a lot here in letters and emails from people who are quite fond of me and/or my family, but who don’t know us extremely well.
Bisous (à tous) – Love (to you all)
As in English, this is a sign-off that’s used with people you’re very close to, like family and good friends.
Bises – Kisses
This is a bit less formal.
Je t’embrasse/Je vous embrasse/On t’embrasse/On vous embrasse/Nous t’embrassons/Nous vous embrassons – All our love/With love.
This phrase literally means “I/We kiss you”. It’s a bit more formal than the other closings on this list, but I sometimes find that even people close to us, or family members, use it. You’ll sometimes see bien fort added to the end, for instance: Je t’embrasse bien fort. This is the rough equivalent “Big kisses” or “Lots of Love” and, to me, shows a bit more affection and familiarity.
If you want even more options, this article is a good source of additional openings, phrases, and closings for informal or friendly French letters and emails.
Three examples of informal or friendly French emails and letters
Here are three emails or letters that I’ve recently received from friends and family in France, as well as an example of an informal exchange about selling an item online.
I. An email from a French friend
(Note: All personal information has been removed or replaced):
J’ai mis le temps, mais ça y est, j’ai enregistré nos photos de l’anniversaire d’Antoine dans un album Google.
Et vous, comment ça va ?
Avez-vous pris des vacances pour la Toussaint ?
Antoine et moi sommes partis 4 jours au Portugal. Ça nous a fait un bien fou !
Nous vous faisons des bises et vous disons à bientôt,
Carole & Antoine
II. A card from French relatives
Alysa, [my husband], [my son],
Merci pour votre carte.
Nous vous souhaitons de joyeuses fêtes de Noel.
On vous embrasse très fort,
Nadine et Charles
III. A reply from someone selling a bookshelf online
This is a reply to a message I left on famous French classifieds site Le Bon Coin, regarding some bookshelves I was interested in buying:
Bonjour, les bibliothèques ne sont plus disponibles. Merci pour votre message. Cdt
As you can see from the last message, informal correspondence, especially online, is often very influenced by French texting slang and abbreviations.
Still, the messages on these sites are almost always polite – French people typically take the time to at least end the first one with some form of Cordialement.
Essential French phrases for specific occasions
Here are a few French phrases you’ll commonly see or use for specific occasions and situations:
- Félicitations/Toutes mes félicitations– Congratulations/My heartfelt congratulations
- Joyeux anniversaire – Happy Birthday
- Bonne année – Happy New Year
- Bonnes fêtes/Joyeuses fêtes – Happy Holidays
- Meilleurs vœux– Best wishes/Season’s greetings
Meilleurs vœux shows goodwill for a specific event, for instance, if someone graduated school. But it’s also typically used during the winter holiday season to mean “Season’s greetings”.
- Sincères condoléances/Toutes mes condoléances – My condolences/My sincere/heartfelt condolences
- Merci/Mes remerciements – Thank you/My sincere thanks
- Tu me manques/Vous me manquez – I miss you.
- Je t’aime – I love you.
I’ll end this guide to writing a French letter with a short, somewhat formal note:
J’espère que vous avez trouvé cet article utile, et que vous ne serez pas (ou ne serez plus) intimidés quand vous devez écrire une lettre ou un mél en français.
Bonne continuation et bon courage !