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. The body has the task of acting as an official authority on the language; it is charged with publishing an official dictionary of the language. Its rulings, however, are only advisory; not binding on either the public or the government.
The Académie's origins lie in an informal group that grew out of the salons held at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, which discussed literature during the late 1620s and early 1630s. Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of France, later took the body under his protection. In anticipation of the formal creation of the body, several members were appointed in 1634. On 22 February 1635, at Richelieu's urging, King Louis XIII granted letters patent formally establishing the body; the letters patent were registered at the Parlement de Paris on 10 July 1637. The Académie française was 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 President of France is the "protector" or patron of the Académie. Cardinal Richelieu originally fulfilled this role; upon his death in 1642, Pierre Séguier, the Chancellor of France, succeeded him. King Louis XIV took over the function when Séguier died in 1672; since then, the French head of state has always served as the Académie's protector. 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.
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 body 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 falls vacant, a person may apply to the Secretary if they wish to become a candidate. Alternatively, the existing members may nominate other candidates. A candidate is elected only if he or she receives the votes of a majority of members voting; the 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 only once a controversy about the candidature of Paul Morand, which de Gaulle opposed in 1958. Morand was finally elected 10 years later, and was received without the customary visit of investiture to the Élysée). Then, the new member is installed at a sitting of the Académie. The new member must deliver a speech to the Académie, in which he or she must eulogise the member being replaced, and then listen to a speech made by one of the Academicians. Eight days thereafter, a public reception is held, during which the new member makes a speech thanking his counterparts for his election. A case happened of a member (Georges de Porto-Riche) not being received because the eulogy he made of his predecessor was not considered satisfactory by the commission of reading of the Académie, 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 Second World War; 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 710 immortels, of whom four have been women (the first woman, Marguerite Yourcenar, was elected in 1980 — besides the four 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 academicians include Louis, duc de Broglie, Alexandre Dumas, fils, 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, Honoré de Balzac, René Descartes, Denis Diderot, Gustave Flaubert, Molière, Marcel Proust, Jules Verne, and Émile Zola.
The official uniform of an academician is known as l'habit vert, or the green habit. The habit vert, worn at the Académie's foreign ceremonies, was first adopted during Napoleon Bonaparte's reorganisation of the Institut de France. It consists of a long black coat and black feathered cocked hat (officially called a bicorne), each heavily embroidered with golden-green leaf motifs, together with black trousers or skirt. Furthermore, members receive a ceremonial sword (l'épée), except Academicians who are women or clergymen, who do not receive swords.
As French culture has come under increasing pressure with the widespread availability of English media, the Académie has tried to prevent the anglicisation of the French language. For example, the Académie has recommended, with mixed success, that some loanwords from English (such as walkman, software and email) be avoided, in favour of words derived from French (baladeur, logiciel, and courriel respectively). Moreover, the Académie has worked to modernise French orthography. The body, however, has sometimes been criticised for behaving in an excessively conservative fashion. A recent controversy involved the officialisation of feminine equivalents for the names of several professions. For instance, in 1997, Lionel Jospin's government began using the feminine noun "la ministre" to refer to a female minister, following the official practice of Canada, Belgium and Switzerland and a common, though until then unofficial, practice in France. The Académie, however, insisted on the traditional use of the masculine noun, "le ministre," for a minister of either gender. Use of either form remains controversial.
The most important prize is the grand prix de la francophonie, which was instituted in 1986, and is funded by the governments of France, Canada, Monaco, and Morocco. Other important prizes include the grand prix de littérature (for a literary work), the grand prix du roman (for a novel), the grand prix de poésie (for poetry), the grand prix de philosophie (for a philosophical work), and the grand prix Gobert (for a work on French history).
|4||vacant (Cardinal Lustiger died August 5, 2007)||-|
|7||Jacqueline de Romilly||1988|
|11||Gabriel, prince de Broglie||2001|
|13||vacant (Pierre Messmer died August 29, 2007)||-|
|14||Hélène Carrère d'Encausse||1990|
|16||Valéry Giscard d'Estaing||2003|
|22||René de Obaldia||1999|
|32||vacant (Alain Robbe-Grillet died 18 February 2008)||-|