French Academy: 5 Key Insights on Customs and Costumes

The French Academy must choose on Thursday who, between Amin Maalouf and Jean-Christophe Rufin, will be its 33rd permanent secretary and successor to Hélène Carrère d’Encausse. Here are five things to know about this centuries-old institution.

Modernize the French language?

The Academy was founded in 1635 by Richelieu, its “leader and protector”. Today, this function is carried out by the head of state. Its mission: to work “to give certain rules to our language and to make it pure, eloquent and capable of dealing with the arts and sciences”. The Academy draws up a dictionary and decides on spelling rules. The language she defends is located between “usage and the norm”. In the 18th century it played an important role with three dictionaries: 30% of words changed spelling, accents appeared. In 1835, “François” became “French”. In 1990, it agreed to the lesser use of the hyphen in compound words, to optional circumflex accents on u’s and i’s (with some exceptions!) or to the Frenchification of certain foreign words. However, there is no question of moving on inclusive writing, a “peril”, or on the anglicisms used “so as not to take the trouble to look for the French term”. The Academy, for example, considers the words cool, finalize, efficient, collaborative, “harmful”.

Why the “immortals”

Today, 35 “immortals” sit on the 40 statutory members, a reference to the motto “À l’immortalité”, which refers to their mission to preserve the French language. Elected by an absolute majority, academicians are scientists, priests, writers, historians or politicians. Among the most famous: Montesquieu (1727), Marivaux (1742), Voltaire (1746), Chateaubriand (1811), Hugo (1841, after four candidacies) and Pasteur (1881)… Zola suffered 25 refusals, while Clemenceau, not even a candidate, was unanimously elected in 1918. Just like Marshal Pétain (1929), excluded in 1945.

Only rule, since 2010: be under 75 years old to run. However Mario Vargas Llosa is elected in 2021 at… 85 years old. A Spaniard of Peruvian origin, he is the only one to have never written in French. In 1995, the candidacy of Jorge Semprun, writer and former Spanish Minister of Culture, was rejected. Despite his work in French. Several foreigners have sat, such as the American Julien Green (1972), the Canadian of Haitian origin Dany Laferrière (2015), or currently the novelist of Russian origin Andreï Makine (2016) and the writer of Chinese origin François Cheng (2002).

A dictionary in the works for almost forty years

In four centuries, the institution has produced eight dictionaries. The first dates from 1694, the last from 1930. Since 1986, the Academy has gradually published its 9th edition. In March 2023, it reached the word “spermatophytes”. “Car radio”, “marketing”, “mascara”, “euro” or even “hypermarket” are among the 28,000 words added. The emergence of linguistics, the appearance of dictionaries and the creation of commissions responsible for the defense of French, have undermined its pre-eminence. After centuries of opposition, the institution agreed in 2019 to feminize certain professions (railway worker, controller, MP, doctor, etc.).

Swords and purse

Every new academician receives a sword and a coat of dark blue or black cloth, embroidered with green and gold olive branches, made by a great couturier or the army tailor. The cheapest on the market is 50,000 euros per outfit. Formerly a mark of belonging to the House of the King, the sword is now personalized. Simone Veil had her Birkenau camp registration number engraved there. Chantal Thomas preferred a fan. Jacqueline de Romilly, an embroidered bag.

Eleven “immortal” women

In 1760, an academician, d’Alembert, proposed in vain to reserve four chairs for women. The first candidate was the journalist Pauline Savari, in 1893. “Women are not eligible since you are only a French citizen when you have completed conscription,” she was told. In 1910, Marie Curie’s candidacy was also rejected… so as not to create a precedent. In 1980, Marguerite Yourcenar was the first woman elected. Not without difficulty. The far-right historian Pierre Gaxotte then dares to make a racist comparison. It was three years before Léopold Sédar Senghor entered the Dome. In total, eleven women were elected. Six are currently sitting. But the Academy considers that the terms “immortal” and “academician” should not be feminized. Elected in 1999, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the first to direct the Academy, insisted that she be called Madame “the” perpetual secretary.

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