L’Académie française is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The body has the task of acting as an official authority on the language; it is charged with publishing an official dictionary. Its rulings, however, are only advisory; not binding on either the public or the government.
The Académie française has forty seats, each of which is assigned a separate number. Candidates make their applications for a specific seat, not to the Académie in general: if several seats are vacant, a candidate may apply separately for each. Since a newly-elected member is required to eulogise his predecessor in his installation ceremony, it is not uncommon that potential candidates refuse to apply for particular seats because they dislike the predecessors so much that even an enormous exercise in tact will not suffice.
From 1672 to 1805, the official meetings of the Académie were held at the Louvre; since 1805, the Académie française has met at the Collège des Quatre Nations (now known as the Palais de l’Institut). The remaining académies of the Institut de France also meet at the Palais de l’Institut.
The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution, it was restored in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the oldest of the five académies of the Institut de France.
The Académie’s origins occur in an informal literary group that grew out of the salons held at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, during the late 1620s and early 1630s. They began meeting at Valentin Conrart’s house, seeking informality. There were nine members then . Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of France, took the body under his protection, and in anticipation of the formal creation of the academy, new members were appointed in 1634. On 22 February 1635, at Richelieu’s urging, King Louis XIII granted letters patent formally establishing the body; according to the letters patent registered at the Parlement de Paris on 10 July 1637, the Académie française was ‘to labour with all the care and diligence possible, to give exact rules to our language, to render it capable of treating the arts and sciences’. The Académie française has remained responsible for the regulation of French grammar, spelling, and literature.
During the French Revolution, the National Convention suppressed all royal académies, including the Académie française. In 1792, the election of new members to replace those who died was prohibited; in 1793, the académies were themselves abolished. They were all replaced in 1795 by a single body called the Institut de France, or Institute of France. Napoleon Bonaparte, as First Consul, decided to restore the former académies, but only as ‘classes’ or divisions of the Institut de France. The second class of the Institut was responsible for the French language, and corresponded to the former Académie française. When King Louis XVIII came to the throne in 1816, each class regained the title of ‘Académie’; accordingly, the second class of the Institut became the Académie française. Since 1816, the existence of the Académie française has been uninterrupted.
The Académie consists of forty members, known as immortels (immortals). New members are elected by the members of the Académie itself. Académicians hold office for life, but they may be removed for misconduct.
Members are known as les immortels (the immortals) because of the motto, ‘À l’immortalité’ (‘To immortality’), that appears on the official seal of the charter granted by Cardinal Richelieu. One of the immortels is chosen by his or her counterparts to be the Académie’s Perpetual Secretary; the Perpetual Secretary serves for life, or until resignation. The Académie may, furthermore, appoint a former Perpetual Secretary to the office of Honorary Perpetual Secretary. The most senior member, by date of election, is the Dean of the Académie.
New members are elected by the Académie itself. (The original members were appointed.) When a seat becomes vacant, a person may apply to the Secretary if he wishes to become a candidate. Alternatively, existing members may nominate other candidates. A candidate is elected on a majority of votes from voting members. A quorum is twenty members. If no candidate receives an absolute majority, another election must be held at a later date. The election is valid only if the protector of the Académie, the President of France, grants his approval. The President’s approbation, however, is only a formality. (There was a controversy about the candidacy of Paul Morand, whom Charles de Gaulle opposed in 1958. Morand was finally elected ten years later, and he was received without the customary visit, at the time of investiture, to the Élysée palace.)
The new member is then installed at a sitting of the Académie. The new member must deliver a speech to the Académie, which includes a eulogy for the member being replaced. This is followed by a speech made by one of the members. Eight days later, a public reception is held, during which the new member makes a speech thanking his counterparts for his election. Once, a member (Georges de Porto-Riche) was not accorded a reception because the eulogy he made of his predecessor was not considered satisfactory, and he refused to rewrite it. Georges Clemenceau refused to be received because he feared that he might be received by his enemy, Raymond Poincaré.
Members remain in the Académie for life. However, the body may expel an academician for grave misconduct. The first expulsion came in 1638, when Auger de Moléon de Granier was removed for theft. The most recent expulsions came at the end of the World War II; Abel Bonnard, Abel Hermant, Philippe Pétain, and Charles Maurras were all excluded for their association with the Vichy regime. In total, twenty members have been expelled from the Académie.
There have been a total of 719 immortels, of whom six have been women (the first woman, Marguerite Yourcenar, was elected in 1980 — besides the six elected women, 14 women were candidates, the first one in 1874). Individuals who are not citizens of France may be, and have been, elected. Moreover, although most academicians are writers, one need not be a member of the literary profession to become a member. The Académie has included numerous politicians, lawyers, scientists, historians, philosophers, and senior Roman Catholic clergymen. Five French heads of state (Adolphe Thiers, Raymond Poincaré, Paul Deschanel, Philippe Pétain, and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing), and one foreign head of state (Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal) have been members. Other famous members include Louis, duc de Broglie, Alexandre Dumas the son, Victor Hugo, Charles, baron de Montesquieu, Louis Pasteur, Henri Poincaré, and Voltaire.
Many notable French writers have not become members of the Académie française. In 1855, the writer, Arsène Houssaye, devised the expression, ‘forty-first seat’, for deserving individuals who were never elected to the Académie, either because their candidacies were rejected, because they were never candidates, or because they died before appropriate vacancies arose. Notable figures in French literature who never became academicians include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph de Maistre, Honoré de Balzac, René Descartes, Denis Diderot, Gustave Flaubert, Molière, Marcel Proust, Jules Verne, Theophile Gautier, and Émile Zola.