Lifting the Veil on the Académie Française

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PARIS — The headline jumped out at me: “Luc Ferry rejected by the Académie Française.” I thought: Wow, what must that be like? What a humiliation for a prominent ex-minister of education, a widely read columnist in Le Figaro, most certainly not used to seeing his name and the word “rejected” in close proximity, and in full view of the public.

As The Times’s newly appointed Paris bureau chief (and for several years its Paris correspondent), I had always assumed that the mysterious world of the Académie Française, the “Immortals” as they are known in France, took place almost entirely behind closed doors.

True, you would occasionally hear grumpy pronouncements emanating from their magnificent dome, to the effect that the French language was going to hell and that everything was better before.

Otherwise the academy, which is responsible for updating the definitive French dictionary, had always struck me as one of those essentially French institutions, enshrining the useful and the useless at the same time, fighting a quixotic rear-guard action to preserve French from change, and doing so with great pomp, circumstance and expensive uniforms. In any case it seemed impenetrable behind its austere, 17th-century facades on the Left Bank.

It turned out that the academy had been trying, and failing, to fill one of four vacancies for some time. Successive votes had come up short of the required absolute majority. The “Immortals” couldn’t find anybody worthy enough to join them. This intrigued me: It is something of a running joke in France that the highlight of the academy’s long history is its habit of systematically excluding most of the country’s greatest writers, instead filling its seats with those from the second rank.

I decided to find out more about how it was that a man like Luc Ferry could wind up in such an unpromising position. It turned out that a phone call, or calls, was not going to be enough. The staff members at the academy were polite — they came up with names of some académiciens they thought might be willing to speak with me — but firm: I would have to write individual letters to each, requesting an interview. The academy has been around since 1634 and moves slowly. I would be obligated to also.

As it happens, the only ones who responded right away were two members who defy the academy’s overwhelmingly white membership roll: the Lebanese-born novelist Amin Maalouf and the Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière. Perhaps they felt less instinctively protective of the academy’s ancient customs, though it turned out that, in conversation, they were as proud of them as any member who might have been around since the founding.

But two interlocutors was not enough. Luckily for me the academy was having one of its rare induction ceremonies, for a writer “recently” admitted — a year before. (The academy moves slowly.)

I wrangled an invitation and showed up at the appointed hour in the magnificent marbled halls. The guests under the great dome were impeccably dressed in that smart Parisian way that inevitably made me think of the fierce class war that has been raging every Saturday since the “Yellow Vest” movement started over three months ago. This was not a “Yellow Vest” crowd.

The académiciens trooped down the stairs in their splendid green-embroidered uniforms to the sound of a Republican Guard drumbeat, and several hours of verbal fireworks followed, with the inductee and a welcoming member launching elaborate decorations on the French language at each other, according to the time-honored custom. At the reception afterward the members who had not responded to my letter were cordial and agreed to speak with me.

The failure to fill the four seats was, as it turned out, causing a certain amount of distress. But what was the real back story? This was a more impenetrable mystery than the mere mechanics of the election, or what might induce an independent spirit to join what is essentially an elderly white men’s club that sits around curating fine distinctions in the French language.

As for Mr. Ferry: We exchanged text messages, but there was no comment from him on the record.

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