Thu, 07 Dec 2023

French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf has taken over the role of "perpetual secretary" of the Academie Francaise, a body that serves as the custodian and promoter of the French language.

Maalouf, 74, was elected leader of the prestigious Paris-based institution this week, becoming the 33rd leader of the academy since it was set up in 1634 by Louis XIII.

He takes over from historian Helène Carrère d'Encausse, who died in August having held the post since 1999.

She did not designate a successor but Maalouf, who won the Prix Goncourt literary prize in 1993 for "The Rock of Tanios", was seen as an obvious choice given his active role in the institution since joining in 2011.

Members of the academy, known as "immortals" in reference to their motto "à l'immortalite" ("to immortality"), chose Maalouf over writer Jean-Christophe Rufin, the only other candidate.

The two men are friends and Rufin declared his candidacy at the last minute, fearing there was a lack of democratic process.

A bridge between civilisations

Maalouf is the first Lebanese-born figure to head up the academy.

He was born to a Greek Catholic mother and Protestant father, while his grandmother was Turkish and married an Egyptian.

Raised in the Arabic language, Maalouf spoke English at home and studied in a French Jesuit school.

He started out as a journalist, and fled Lebanon for France in 1976 during the civil war.

His first novel, "Leo Africanus", was published in 1986 and he has continued to write mainly historical novels, using his talent as a storyteller to make the past and present history of the Middle East more accessible to a wider public.

Much of Maalouf's writing is aimed at bridging Europe and the Middle East. Among his best known non-fiction is "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes".

He has the symbols of both Lebanon (cedar tree) and France (Marianne) engraved on the sword that all "immortals" carry when in full costume.

Challenges ahead

The Academie Francaise is charged with setting the rules of the French language to make sure it stays "pure, eloquent and capable of dealing with the arts and sciences".

At times it would appear to be leading a crusade against the "invasion" of the English language.

French Academy says 'stop speaking franglais, s'il vous plaît!'

Last year the body spoke out against the common practice of using English-sounding terms in French advertising and on branding, including train operator SNCF's low-cost "Ouigo" (prounounced "we go") service, or imports from English such as "drive-in".

Under Carrère d'Encausse it even threatened legal action against the government for including English translations on national identity cards.

It remains to be seen how Maalouf, a fluent English speaker, will tackle the question of franglais.

One of his immediate priorities will be to complete the the academy's ninth dictionary, which it has been working on since 1986 and is near to completion.

In 2019, after decades of resisting change, the academy agreed to allow the feminisation of all professions.

French language authority finally gives thumbs up to feminise job titles

It is hoped Maalouf, who is seen by his peers as charismatic, might draw new, younger blood into the academy.

Five of the 40 seats remain unfilled in the very male-dominated institution.

The academy's first female member, Marguerite Yourcenar, joined in 1980, while today there are just six women "immortelles".

Originally published on RFI

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