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Amin Maalouf and Jean-Christophe Rufin, Goncourt’s duel to lead the French Academy

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. The chosen one from among the two writers will have the task of ensuring the sustainability of an institution with original functioning – a French exception.

After the death of Hélène Carrère d’Encausse at the beginning of August, the “immortals” are called upon, Thursday, September 28, to elect the new perpetual secretary to replace her at the head of the French Academy. Two writers are candidates for the position: Amin Maalouf and Jean-Christophe Rufin. Applications were open until Monday evening.

The vote is scheduled for Thursday afternoon, according to very simple arrangements. The 35 members of the French Academy are voters. Only votes for one of these two men will be counted. The elected official will have the task of ensuring the sustainability of a centuries-old institution with a unique functioning.

Franco-Lebanese writer and member of the French Academy Amin Maalouf at his home in Port-Joinville, western France, on October 1, 2021. © Loic Venance, AFP

Amin Maalouf, 74 years old, Goncourt Prize 1993

Amin Maalouf, 74, is a Franco-Lebanese writer who won the Goncourt Prize in 1993 for “The Rock of Tanios”.

Considered the favorite, he has been a declared candidate for some time.

His personality is unanimous: he is very involved in the activities of the French Academy, where he joined in 2011. He also has the advantage of being seen as a permanent secretary who would have pleased Hélène Carrère d’Encausse.

On October 4, he published “Le Labyrinthe des égarés” (Ed. Grasset), a series of stories on historical confrontations between the West and the rest of the world.

French academician, diplomat and writer Jean-Christophe Rufin in Paris, March 3, 2016.
French academician, diplomat and writer Jean-Christophe Rufin in Paris, March 3, 2016. © Joel Saget, AFP

Jean-Christophe Rufin, 71 years old and 2001 Goncourt Prize

Jean-Christophe Rufin, a 71-year-old former diplomat, won the Goncourt Prize in 2001 for his book “Rouge Brazil”.

This trained doctor has been at the Academy since 2008.

Less consensual than Amin Maalouf, he hesitated before finally launching. “At first tempted to give up, I came to the conclusion that our great cause deserves some sacrifices,” he wrote in his application letter, cited by Le Monde. He had let it be known that he found it frustrating to have only one candidate.

The magazine M du Monde reported that another academician, Marc Lambron, had led an active campaign against him in recent months, accusing him of a lack of independence.

Jean-Christophe Rufin, who is multiplying his activities, in fact submitted a report in May for TotalEnergies on the situation in Mozambique. And from 2020 to 2022 he chaired the Sanofi Espoir Corporate Foundation, from the pharmaceutical group, later renamed Foundation S.

  • “Giving rules” to the French language

The French Academy was founded in 1635 by Richelieu, its “chief 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 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 ninth edition – last July, the “immortals” completed the examination of the words of this 9th edition, almost twice as numerous as in the 8th.

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, inspector, deputy, doctor… In 1990, it agreed to the lesser use of the hyphen in compound words, with optional circumflex accents. on -u and -i or the Frenchification of certain foreign words. No question, however, of moving on anglicisms or inclusive writing, a “peril”.

  • Immortals… and only 11 women elected in nearly four centuries

Today, 35 “immortals” sit among 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, when Clemenceau, not even a candidate, was unanimously elected in 1918. Just like Marshal Pétain (1929), excluded in 1945.

Several foreigners have sat, such as the American Julien Green (1972), the Canadian of Haitian origin Dany Laferrière (2015), the novelist of Russian origin Andreï Makine (2016), the writer of Chinese origin François Cheng (2002 ) or the Spanish writer of Peruvian origin Mario Vargas Llosa – the only academician to have never written in French.

In almost four centuries, only 11 women have been elected – six are currently in office. Since 1760, when Academician D’Alembert proposed in vain to reserve four seats for women, being elected has been an obstacle course.

The first candidate was the journalist Pauline Savari, in 1893. “Women are not eligible since you are only a French citizen when you have fulfilled conscription” (compulsory military service, Editor’s note)”, retorted – we say. 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 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.

  • Sword, green suit and adaptation to the Internet shift

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.

Whether it is Amin Maalouf or Jean-Christophe Rufin, the permanent secretary of the Académie française is the member who directs the Académie française. There have only been 32 people to hold this position since 1634. The Academy has 40 seats – five of which are still vacant, awaiting elections.

Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, who joined in 1990 and was elected head of the institution in 1999, will remain the permanent secretary who led the Académie française into the Internet direction. Although contested by many linguists for its conservatism, the Academy’s dictionary is a valuable tool for following the evolution of the French language. All of its editions are available online for free.

For his successor, one of the crucial tasks will be to ensure financial sustainability which is not guaranteed, according to a report from the Court of Auditors on the Institut de France published in 2021.

The other challenge will be to attract worthy candidates to wear the green coat. Hélène Carrère d’Encausse has, in fact, not always been successful in her attempts to encourage or have the candidacies of younger and popular writers endorsed. Michel Houellebecq did not respond to his calls, and authors like Frédéric Beigbeder or Benoît Duteurtre were rejected.

With AFP


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