Mon. Dec 11th, 2023

“The Immortals” have spoken: the 388-year-old Academie Francaise, custodian and promoter of the French language, has a new leader in the form of author Amin Maalouf.

The French-Lebanese writer, 74, becomes only the 33rd person to occupy the post of “perpetual secretary” since the body’s founding under King Louis XIII in 1635.

He takes over from Helene Carrere d’Encausse, who died last month having held the post since 1999.

She did not designate a clear successor but Maalouf, who won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 1993 for “The Rock of Tanios”, was considered the obvious choice due to his highly active engagement in the institution since being elected in 2011.

There was one other candidate, his close friend Jean-Christophe Rufin, though he only threw his hat in the ring at the last minute, fearing there was not enough of a democratic process, joking to one magazine this weekend that it was “like North Korea”.

The academy is charged with setting the rules of the language to ensure it remains “pure, eloquent and capable of dealing with the arts and sciences”.

Lately, it most often gains notice as the bulwark against the entry of English words into French usage.

Last year it railed against the common practice of using English-sounding terms in French ads and branding — such as train operator SNCF’s low-cost “Ouigo” (pronounced “we go”) service — or simple imports from English like “big data” and “drive-in”.

It became more assertive under Carrere d’Encausse, even threatening legal action against the government for including English translations on national identity cards.

There are currently 35 members of the Academy — known as “Immortals” in reference to their motto “A l’immortalite” (“To immortality”).

Past members include such luminaries as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Victor Hugo.

One of Maalouf’s priorities will be to complete its ninth dictionary, which the academy has been working on since 1986, and is reportedly close to completion.

After centuries of opposition, it agreed in 2019 to allow feminine versions of certain professions, including railway worker, member of parliament and doctor.

The first female member of the Academie, Marguerite Yourcenar, was only admitted in 1980 and there are currently six.

Novelist and essayist Maalouf started his career as a journalist, working as a foreign correspondent.

As well as “The Rock of Tanios”, his novels include “Leo Africanus” and “Samarkand”. Among his best known non-fiction is “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes”.

by Hugues HONORÉ

©️ Agence France-Presse

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