en-es  Meet the Cultural Illuminati Guarding France’s Most Sacrosanct Asset: The French Language
Meet the Cultural Illuminati Guarding France’s Most Sacrosanct Asset: The French Language.

By James Reginato, Photographs by Jonathan Becker, Vanity Fair, September 12, 2018.

The sanctity—and relevance—of the French language lies in the hands of the intrepid members of the Académie Française, a centuries-old cloak-and-dagger society working to preserve France’s mother tongue.

When you’re known as “the immortals,” as are the 40 members of the Académie Française, it’s hard to take yourselves lightly. Over the course of five centuries, 732 of them have walked the earth and reigned as the guardians of France’s most sacrosanct asset: its language. A linguistic secret service, if you like, they project an almost priestly aura when they don their habits verts—long black cloaks embroidered with leafy-green botanical motifs—accessorized with elaborate ceremonial swords. Drawn from the arts and academia as well as the clergy and government, the Académie is considered to include the nation’s finest minds, and is revered accordingly. It is, after all, the most exclusive club in France.

In recent years, however, these august savants (ranging in age from a sprightly 60 up to 99), who serve for life after being elected by the membership, have begun to face some distinctly 21st-century challenges—for starters, replenishing their ranks. Inside their temple-like palace on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Louvre, in the majestic coupole-topped chamber where they convene, a good portion of the numbered fauteuils have sat vacant for long stretches (six were unoccupied in 2017) while the Académie goes through its laborious election process. In May, it chose its fifth living female immortal, and the ninth ever. Opinions on hot-button issues such as “inclusive writing,” which aims to make French grammar more gender-neutral, have created a cultural stir.

The Académie Française remains a unique combination of pomp and real intellectual power—a bastion, in every sense—as I was able to witness one week in May, when the historically press-averse powers of the Académie granted me interviews and access inside their palace. The question at hand: could the arcane, archaic Académie be re-invigorated by new blood, attention, and energy? And just what, exactly, do they do?

Since 1635, when it was founded by Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s chief minister, the Académie’s primary task has been to write the official dictionary of the French language. The first edition took 56 years to complete. A new edition is embarked upon as soon as one is finished, and typically requires decades of labor. Work on the ninth edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, commenced in 1986, has progressed (as of August) up to surhomme. Each Thursday morning, the 15 members of the dictionary committee convene around an oval table, as their predecessors have for centuries, and proceed word by word. “We’ll cover 20 to 30 if all goes well,” says one member. That afternoon, the entire membership assembles for learned discourse, and it’s livelier than you might think.

“We have fun; it’s not stuffy. We have discussions, not arguments. I’ve never had to resort to the sword,” says playwright René de Obaldia, occupant of fauteuil 22 since 1999, who will turn 100 in October. “It is a pleasure to go there because people have a way of speaking to each other with such politeness. It is completely out of today’s time,” says art historian Pierre Rosenberg, the former director of the Louvre, and fauteuil 23 since 1995. “We are not here to stop change,” says author Sir Michael Edwards, the only British immortal (fauteuil 31 since 2013), “but to push language in the way of greatest eloquence, resourcefulness, and beauty; to steer it in the direction of the best French possible.” Controversy can erupt along the way. Occasionally the Académie issues public edicts, injunctions, and alarms, many of which are intended to suppress some pernicious foreign word, particularly an Anglicism, from gaining traction in French discourse; in its place the members proffer a more desirable French equivalent. Some of their efforts take root—courriel is widely used instead of “e-mail”—but many others, such as prêt hypothécaire à risque élevé in place of “subprime mortgage,” just never catch on.

And then there’s inclusive writing, a tough ask for a language where gender is a central feature. French nouns are either masculine or feminine, dictating their adjectives, and the masculine always trumps the feminine: if one male nurse appeared in a group of 99 female nurses, they would all be called infirmiers, not infirmières. The French high commission for gender equality recently condemned this practice as “a form of sexual tyranny.” But to the immortals, changing the grammatical rules would produce a worse offense: a clumsy, inelegant, and ultimately less beautiful language. In October 2017, according to The Telegraph, they issued a stern declaration that just said non. Gender inclusivity “leads to a fragmented language, disparate in its expression, creating confusion that borders on being unreadable. . . . Faced with the ‘inclusive’ aberration, the French language is in mortal danger, for which our nation is accountable to future generations.” Many feminists were outraged by the stand; other French speakers, too, have come to view the Académie as elitist and old-fashioned. Journalist François Busnel blasted the organization, likening it to “a fat, blind, suicidal whale stubbornly determined to beach itself on a rocky coast with everyone watching.” But the Académie still has friends in high places. In March, President Emmanuel Macron rocked the house with a rousing speech, the first address ever given there by a sitting French president. “Grammar, vocabulary, etymology, and . . . literature are the breeding ground where our lives take root,” he said. A few months earlier, in the courtyard of Les Invalides, which contains Napoleon’s tomb, Macron and his wife, Brigitte, flanked by former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, presided over the grand state funeral of Jean d’Ormesson, a beloved author who had died at age 92, after a 44-year tenure in the Académie. “We’re here, different by age, background, jobs, [and] political opinions, but united over what [constitutes] the essence of France: the love of literature,” said Macron, before he placed a pencil on d’Ormesson’s tricolor-draped coffin.

In the past few years the Académie has been furiously devoted to filling its empty seats. After the election of the medievalist Michel Zink in December 2017, this year it tapped novelist Patrick Grainville and philologist Barbara Cassin to join. The selection of the latter was particularly notable, as she is considered a leftist, even a radical by some—and, oh yes, she’s a woman, raising the Académie’s current female population to five. At the time of the first female appointment, Marguerite Yourcenar, in 1980, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing—who became an immortal in 2003 and remains one today at 92—sent her a telegraph in which he offered his “deferential congratulations upon your brilliant election, which consecrates the eminent place of women in French literature.” Later, in her acceptance address, Yourcenar said, “One cannot say that in French society, so impregnated with feminine influences, the Académie has been a notable misogynist. It simply conformed to the custom that willingly places a woman on a pedestal but did not permit itself to officially offer her a chair.” Less forward-looking was the election held on June 21, when the membership gathered to choose a successor to the late novelist Michel Déon. Among the several candidates, the front-runners were Bruno Racine, 66, an esteemed civil servant who had most recently been the director of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and Frédéric Mitterrand, 71, a polymath writer-filmmaker and former French minister of culture. A nephew of the late president Mitterrand, Frédéric is also openly gay.

The election of an immortal has been compared to the election of a Pope, but with certain distinctions. “Each [Academician] is convinced he is more important than the Pope,” Xavier Darcos, chancellor of the Institut de France and an immortal, says with a laugh. The director of a Paris museum describes the Académie as “a cross between the Vatican and the Jockey Club,” referring to the poshest men’s club in Paris. And like papal conclaves, the Académie can remain deadlocked for long periods. On June 21, after no candidate received a majority of votes (Mitterrand garnered 11 in each of the three rounds, while Racine averaged 8), an election blanche was declared; another try was scheduled for October 11—though not necessarily with the same candidates. The analysis of one eminent, heterosexual French intellectual I spoke to was this: “Mitterrand got the support of an important current in the Académie: the gays. As a group their influence is rather strong—not strong enough to have Mitterrand elected, but strong enough to block Racine.” (Historian and novelist Dominique Fernandez, 89, elected to fauteuil 25 in 2007, is the only current Academician who publicly identifies as gay.)

A prominent writer, however, expressed doubt that the members’ sexual orientation was at play here. “I would think they would refuse Mitterrand because he’s a socialist,” he says. This same source chalked up Racine’s loss to his lack of style: “He’s a nice bureaucrat, but not anybody’s idea of distinguished. He’s what my mother would have called common.” And appearances count when you have to call on the immortals to solicit their vote.” Cardinal Richelieu claimed he had founded the Académie to “fix the French language, giving it rules, rendering it pure and comprehensible by all.” Standardizing and perfecting the language—and tamping down on regional dialects—brought unity and glory to France and its empire. Today, with Brexit-bound Britain and Trump-mired America becoming more isolationist, language is a key tool for France’s global ambitions, which presents a renewed mission to the Académie. (In his address there, Macron announced his plan to make French, now the world’s fifth-most-spoken language, with nearly 300 million speakers, the third-most-common one.)

Initially installed in the Louvre, this “parliament of the learned” moved in 1805, on Napoleon’s orders, to its present palace, a masterpiece commissioned at great expense in 1661 by Cardinal Mazarin and designed in a hybrid of Baroque and classical styles by architect Louis Le Vau, before he commenced work on Versailles for Louis XIV. In its new home, the Académie came under the aegis of Napoleon’s newly chartered Institut de France, which encompasses four other learned societies: l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres; l’Académie des sciences; l’Académie des Beaux-Arts; and l’Académie des sciences morales et politiques. Each academy continues to operate independently under the umbrella of the Institut; together they distribute a hefty $25 million or so in awards each year.

At the annual Séance solennelle, a meeting held jointly by the five academies to distribute prizes, the immortals paraded into the coupole in their finery after a procession of France’s Republican Guard. The design of their signature habits verts originates from a committee appointed by Napoleon that included the painter Jacques-Louis David and the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The bespoke garments are hand-embroidered with delicate needlework depicting botanical forms, and have been made at couture houses such as Lanvin, Balmain, and, more recently, Christian Lacroix and Pierre Cardin. Each Academician also carries a sword that reflects aspects of his or her life through inscriptions and designs. Most members have pieces that have been custom-made by jewelers, such as Cartier, Arthus-Bertrand, Chopard, and Lorenz Bäumer.

Both the threads and the blades are, needless to say, cher. A custom suit can run $60,000, and a sword—well, the sky’s the limit. Traditionally, wealthy patrons have formed a committee to raise funds for gifting these items to a new Academician.

Many astonishing swords have been commissioned, but it would be hard to top the one that Cartier crafted in 1955 for the late French writer Jean Cocteau. Designed by Cocteau himself, it featured the main themes of his artistic universe; the profile of Orpheus, his muse, is traced in the curvilinear hilt, while the pommel is crowned by an ivory version of Orpheus’s lyre—adorned with a 2.84-carat emerald contributed by Coco Chanel. The crossguard took the form of a stick of charcoal, evoking his drawings, while, on the scabbard, a pattern evoking the grille of the Palais-Royal alluded to Cocteau’s home there.

“Is French sexist? Yes! But . . . if you try to make a language not sexist, I don’t know if it will be a language.” As a visit to the home of the newest immortal revealed, it’s not your grandfather’s Académie anymore. Barbara Cassin, 71, one of the world’s leading philologists, is a former research director of the French National Center for Scientific Research who has spent her distinguished career studying sophism, rhetoric, and their relation to philosophy. Her work has been described as “a synthesis of Heideggerian thought with a linguistic turn.” In another words, as they say in Boston, she’s wicked smart. Although Cassin describes herself as a feminist, she disapproves of inclusive writing. “Is the French language sexist? Yes!” she exclaims. “But it’s not a pertinent question to ask if a language is sexist or not—everything is sexist. If you try to make a language not sexist, I don’t know if, in the end, it will be a language.” Opening the door to her pleasantly bohemian, book-crammed, plant-filled apartment in the Fifth Arrondissement, she’s also high-energy and good-humored, and seems much younger than 71. “I’m just elected!” she says giddily. “But I’m not yet in!” Cassin will not officially become an immortal until the spring of 2019 at the earliest; a new Academician must first be officially received—and approved—by the French president in a private meeting at the Élysée Palace. But the more time-consuming business is the eulogy a newly elected member is expected to write about his or her predecessor. These speeches, lasting up to an hour, stand as the definitive statement about the late Academician’s career; in preparation, the author is expected to read virtually everything their predecessor ever wrote. The resulting orations, generally published later in book form, are dazzling examples of French intellectual prowess.

“There is also the dress, and the sword,” Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the Académie’s secrétaire perpétuelle, adds, explaining the pre-inauguration prep: couture houses and jewelers require many months to execute the exquisite elements of their crafts.

But this is one tradition that may have to be rethought. “I can’t stand the idea it costs so much, that I am to ask friends to pay for it. Certainly not!” says Cassin. “I want to have a virtual sword, like my grandson has, from the good side of the Force.” Later I report to the imposing, paneled office of Xavier Darcos, who became chancellor of the Institut last December, succeeding Prince Gabriel de Broglie, 87, whose family title comes from the Holy Roman Empire. The arrival of Darcos, 71, a highly regarded career civil servant and politician, is being seen as another sign of modernization; de Broglie’s old-world manner was courtly but autocratic, and this chancellor seems focused on leading the organization into the 21st century.

“Language is power,” he says firmly. “Richelieu was right—it is a political tool.” Darcos’s gleaming sword (made by Lorenz Bäumer), which he proudly displays, appears a powerful tool, too, with its stunning gold handle. “I have very generous friends,” he notes.

The chancellor disputes any suggestions that the Académie is irrelevant or elitist—though he understands why some people have that impression. “Sometimes people think we are a bit passé because our members tend to be elected in the latter parts of their careers,” he says. “But I would say we are the opposite of passé. We are here to support creation. When it is time to look for a new member, we search for people who are not enclosed in their own spaces, for people who moved through different parts of society—someone articulate, sensitive to culture, with an appetite for it.” And if a candidate puts his own hat in the ring, does he stand a chance? Darcos measures his response carefully: “Caution dictates it is better to be asked. The prudent thing is to be on our radar. But there are daredevils . . .” he says, raising his prominent eyebrows.

It has been speculated that, thanks to innumerable magnificent bequests and gifts over many centuries, the Académie is colossally rich. Rumors are rife, but figures are hard to come by—”It has never been very transparent about its finances,” I was told by the museum director. That said, gifts in more recent times have been well disclosed, such as a 20-million-euro bequest from Liliane Bettencourt, France’s wealthiest woman when she died, in 2017, to construct a new auditorium.

The French journalist Daniel Garcia investigated the institution in the 2014 book Coupole et dépendances, and reported that the Académie and the Institut de France possess around 1 billion euros in securities alone, and much more than that in properties and land, including a good chunk of Paris (about 40 prime buildings), hectares of forest land, and numerous historic chateaux, some stocked with staggering art. Foremost among them is the extraordinary Chantilly, whose painting collection is second in importance in France only to that of the Louvre.

According to Garcia, “opacity reigns supreme” at the Académie when it comes to its financial reports; he also questioned whether its vast endowment has been managed efficiently enough (though he did not uncover any malfeasance). De Broglie did not respond to Garcia’s interview requests.

“It has grown to be a very wealthy institution,” Darcos acknowledges. But when I ask for details, he says, delicately, “C’est très compliqué.” Many of the assets and properties in its portfolio drain cash rather than generate it, he explains, citing, as an example, Chantilly, which was bequeathed to the Institut by the Duc d’Aumale in 1886. In 2005, the Institut entered into a long-term partnership with His Highness the Aga Khan to finance the huge costs for its maintenance and restoration.

On this, as on everything, the Académie takes the long view. “We’re called immortals, but it’s a joke, of course. Who will remember us?” says Pierre Rosenberg. “It’s the institution that’s immortal.” Carrère d’Encausse says simply, “We are called the immortals because we have to make sure the French language never dies.” Still, there are occasionally deadlines to consider. Sir Michael Edwards is cautiously optimistic that work on the ninth edition of the Dictionnaire, begun in 1986, will be completed in 2021. “But time will tell,” he says. Spoken like a true immortal.

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Meet the Cultural Illuminati Guarding France’s Most Sacrosanct Asset: The French Language.

By James Reginato, Photographs by Jonathan Becker, Vanity Fair, September 12, 2018.

The sanctity—and relevance—of the French language lies in the hands of the intrepid members of the Académie Française, a centuries-old cloak-and-dagger society working to preserve France’s mother tongue.

When you’re known as “the immortals,” as are the 40 members of the Académie Française, it’s hard to take yourselves lightly. Over the course of five centuries, 732 of them have walked the earth and reigned as the guardians of France’s most sacrosanct asset: its language. A linguistic secret service, if you like, they project an almost priestly aura when they don their habits verts—long black cloaks embroidered with leafy-green botanical motifs—accessorized with elaborate ceremonial swords. Drawn from the arts and academia as well as the clergy and government, the Académie is considered to include the nation’s finest minds, and is revered accordingly. It is, after all, the most exclusive club in France.

In recent years, however, these august savants (ranging in age from a sprightly 60 up to 99), who serve for life after being elected by the membership, have begun to face some distinctly 21st-century challenges—for starters, replenishing their ranks. Inside their temple-like palace on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Louvre, in the majestic coupole-topped chamber where they convene, a good portion of the numbered fauteuils have sat vacant for long stretches (six were unoccupied in 2017) while the Académie goes through its laborious election process. In May, it chose its fifth living female immortal, and the ninth ever. Opinions on hot-button issues such as “inclusive writing,” which aims to make French grammar more gender-neutral, have created a cultural stir.

The Académie Française remains a unique combination of pomp and real intellectual power—a bastion, in every sense—as I was able to witness one week in May, when the historically press-averse powers of the Académie granted me interviews and access inside their palace. The question at hand: could the arcane, archaic Académie be re-invigorated by new blood, attention, and energy? And just what, exactly, do they do?

Since 1635, when it was founded by Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s chief minister, the Académie’s primary task has been to write the official dictionary of the French language. The first edition took 56 years to complete. A new edition is embarked upon as soon as one is finished, and typically requires decades of labor. Work on the ninth edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, commenced in 1986, has progressed (as of August) up to surhomme. Each Thursday morning, the 15 members of the dictionary committee convene around an oval table, as their predecessors have for centuries, and proceed word by word. “We’ll cover 20 to 30 if all goes well,” says one member. That afternoon, the entire membership assembles for learned discourse, and it’s livelier than you might think.

“We have fun; it’s not stuffy. We have discussions, not arguments. I’ve never had to resort to the sword,” says playwright René de Obaldia, occupant of fauteuil 22 since 1999, who will turn 100 in October. “It is a pleasure to go there because people have a way of speaking to each other with such politeness. It is completely out of today’s time,” says art historian Pierre Rosenberg, the former director of the Louvre, and fauteuil 23 since 1995. “We are not here to stop change,” says author Sir Michael Edwards, the only British immortal (fauteuil 31 since 2013), “but to push language in the way of greatest eloquence, resourcefulness, and beauty; to steer it in the direction of the best French possible.”

Controversy can erupt along the way. Occasionally the Académie issues public edicts, injunctions, and alarms, many of which are intended to suppress some pernicious foreign word, particularly an Anglicism, from gaining traction in French discourse; in its place the members proffer a more desirable French equivalent. Some of their efforts take root—courriel is widely used instead of “e-mail”—but many others, such as prêt hypothécaire à risque élevé in place of “subprime mortgage,” just never catch on.

And then there’s inclusive writing, a tough ask for a language where gender is a central feature. French nouns are either masculine or feminine, dictating their adjectives, and the masculine always trumps the feminine: if one male nurse appeared in a group of 99 female nurses, they would all be called infirmiers, not infirmières. The French high commission for gender equality recently condemned this practice as “a form of sexual tyranny.” But to the immortals, changing the grammatical rules would produce a worse offense: a clumsy, inelegant, and ultimately less beautiful language. In October 2017, according to The Telegraph, they issued a stern declaration that just said non. Gender inclusivity “leads to a fragmented language, disparate in its expression, creating confusion that borders on being unreadable. . . . Faced with the ‘inclusive’ aberration, the French language is in mortal danger, for which our nation is accountable to future generations.”

Many feminists were outraged by the stand; other French speakers, too, have come to view the Académie as elitist and old-fashioned. Journalist François Busnel blasted the organization, likening it to “a fat, blind, suicidal whale stubbornly determined to beach itself on a rocky coast with everyone watching.”

But the Académie still has friends in high places. In March, President Emmanuel Macron rocked the house with a rousing speech, the first address ever given there by a sitting French president. “Grammar, vocabulary, etymology, and . . . literature are the breeding ground where our lives take root,” he said. A few months earlier, in the courtyard of Les Invalides, which contains Napoleon’s tomb, Macron and his wife, Brigitte, flanked by former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, presided over the grand state funeral of Jean d’Ormesson, a beloved author who had died at age 92, after a 44-year tenure in the Académie. “We’re here, different by age, background, jobs, [and] political opinions, but united over what [constitutes] the essence of France: the love of literature,” said Macron, before he placed a pencil on d’Ormesson’s tricolor-draped coffin.

In the past few years the Académie has been furiously devoted to filling its empty seats. After the election of the medievalist Michel Zink in December 2017, this year it tapped novelist Patrick Grainville and philologist Barbara Cassin to join. The selection of the latter was particularly notable, as she is considered a leftist, even a radical by some—and, oh yes, she’s a woman, raising the Académie’s current female population to five. At the time of the first female appointment, Marguerite Yourcenar, in 1980, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing—who became an immortal in 2003 and remains one today at 92—sent her a telegraph in which he offered his “deferential congratulations upon your brilliant election, which consecrates the eminent place of women in French literature.” Later, in her acceptance address, Yourcenar said, “One cannot say that in French society, so impregnated with feminine influences, the Académie has been a notable misogynist. It simply conformed to the custom that willingly places a woman on a pedestal but did not permit itself to officially offer her a chair.”

Less forward-looking was the election held on June 21, when the membership gathered to choose a successor to the late novelist Michel Déon. Among the several candidates, the front-runners were Bruno Racine, 66, an esteemed civil servant who had most recently been the director of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and Frédéric Mitterrand, 71, a polymath writer-filmmaker and former French minister of culture. A nephew of the late president Mitterrand, Frédéric is also openly gay.

The election of an immortal has been compared to the election of a Pope, but with certain distinctions. “Each [Academician] is convinced he is more important than the Pope,” Xavier Darcos, chancellor of the Institut de France and an immortal, says with a laugh. The director of a Paris museum describes the Académie as “a cross between the Vatican and the Jockey Club,” referring to the poshest men’s club in Paris. And like papal conclaves, the Académie can remain deadlocked for long periods. On June 21, after no candidate received a majority of votes (Mitterrand garnered 11 in each of the three rounds, while Racine averaged 8), an election blanche was declared; another try was scheduled for October 11—though not necessarily with the same candidates. The analysis of one eminent, heterosexual French intellectual I spoke to was this: “Mitterrand got the support of an important current in the Académie: the gays. As a group their influence is rather strong—not strong enough to have Mitterrand elected, but strong enough to block Racine.” (Historian and novelist Dominique Fernandez, 89, elected to fauteuil 25 in 2007, is the only current Academician who publicly identifies as gay.)

A prominent writer, however, expressed doubt that the members’ sexual orientation was at play here. “I would think they would refuse Mitterrand because he’s a socialist,” he says. This same source chalked up Racine’s loss to his lack of style: “He’s a nice bureaucrat, but not anybody’s idea of distinguished. He’s what my mother would have called common.” And appearances count when you have to call on the immortals to solicit their vote.”

Cardinal Richelieu claimed he had founded the Académie to “fix the French language, giving it rules, rendering it pure and comprehensible by all.” Standardizing and perfecting the language—and tamping down on regional dialects—brought unity and glory to France and its empire. Today, with Brexit-bound Britain and Trump-mired America becoming more isolationist, language is a key tool for France’s global ambitions, which presents a renewed mission to the Académie. (In his address there, Macron announced his plan to make French, now the world’s fifth-most-spoken language, with nearly 300 million speakers, the third-most-common one.)

Initially installed in the Louvre, this “parliament of the learned” moved in 1805, on Napoleon’s orders, to its present palace, a masterpiece commissioned at great expense in 1661 by Cardinal Mazarin and designed in a hybrid of Baroque and classical styles by architect Louis Le Vau, before he commenced work on Versailles for Louis XIV. In its new home, the Académie came under the aegis of Napoleon’s newly chartered Institut de France, which encompasses four other learned societies: l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres; l’Académie des sciences; l’Académie des Beaux-Arts; and l’Académie des sciences morales et politiques. Each academy continues to operate independently under the umbrella of the Institut; together they distribute a hefty $25 million or so in awards each year.

At the annual Séance solennelle, a meeting held jointly by the five academies to distribute prizes, the immortals paraded into the coupole in their finery after a procession of France’s Republican Guard. The design of their signature habits verts originates from a committee appointed by Napoleon that included the painter Jacques-Louis David and the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The bespoke garments are hand-embroidered with delicate needlework depicting botanical forms, and have been made at couture houses such as Lanvin, Balmain, and, more recently, Christian Lacroix and Pierre Cardin. Each Academician also carries a sword that reflects aspects of his or her life through inscriptions and designs. Most members have pieces that have been custom-made by jewelers, such as Cartier, Arthus-Bertrand, Chopard, and Lorenz Bäumer.

Both the threads and the blades are, needless to say, cher. A custom suit can run $60,000, and a sword—well, the sky’s the limit. Traditionally, wealthy patrons have formed a committee to raise funds for gifting these items to a new Academician.

Many astonishing swords have been commissioned, but it would be hard to top the one that Cartier crafted in 1955 for the late French writer Jean Cocteau. Designed by Cocteau himself, it featured the main themes of his artistic universe; the profile of Orpheus, his muse, is traced in the curvilinear hilt, while the pommel is crowned by an ivory version of Orpheus’s lyre—adorned with a 2.84-carat emerald contributed by Coco Chanel. The crossguard took the form of a stick of charcoal, evoking his drawings, while, on the scabbard, a pattern evoking the grille of the Palais-Royal alluded to Cocteau’s home there.

“Is French sexist? Yes! But . . . if you try to make a language not sexist, I don’t know if it will be a language.”

As a visit to the home of the newest immortal revealed, it’s not your grandfather’s Académie anymore. Barbara Cassin, 71, one of the world’s leading philologists, is a former research director of the French National Center for Scientific Research who has spent her distinguished career studying sophism, rhetoric, and their relation to philosophy. Her work has been described as “a synthesis of Heideggerian thought with a linguistic turn.” In another words, as they say in Boston, she’s wicked smart. Although Cassin describes herself as a feminist, she disapproves of inclusive writing. “Is the French language sexist? Yes!” she exclaims. “But it’s not a pertinent question to ask if a language is sexist or not—everything is sexist. If you try to make a language not sexist, I don’t know if, in the end, it will be a language.” Opening the door to her pleasantly bohemian, book-crammed, plant-filled apartment in the Fifth Arrondissement, she’s also high-energy and good-humored, and seems much younger than 71. “I’m just elected!” she says giddily. “But I’m not yet in!”

Cassin will not officially become an immortal until the spring of 2019 at the earliest; a new Academician must first be officially received—and approved—by the French president in a private meeting at the Élysée Palace. But the more time-consuming business is the eulogy a newly elected member is expected to write about his or her predecessor. These speeches, lasting up to an hour, stand as the definitive statement about the late Academician’s career; in preparation, the author is expected to read virtually everything their predecessor ever wrote. The resulting orations, generally published later in book form, are dazzling examples of French intellectual prowess.

“There is also the dress, and the sword,” Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the Académie’s secrétaire perpétuelle, adds, explaining the pre-inauguration prep: couture houses and jewelers require many months to execute the exquisite elements of their crafts.

But this is one tradition that may have to be rethought. “I can’t stand the idea it costs so much, that I am to ask friends to pay for it. Certainly not!” says Cassin. “I want to have a virtual sword, like my grandson has, from the good side of the Force.”

Later I report to the imposing, paneled office of Xavier Darcos, who became chancellor of the Institut last December, succeeding Prince Gabriel de Broglie, 87, whose family title comes from the Holy Roman Empire. The arrival of Darcos, 71, a highly regarded career civil servant and politician, is being seen as another sign of modernization; de Broglie’s old-world manner was courtly but autocratic, and this chancellor seems focused on leading the organization into the 21st century.

“Language is power,” he says firmly. “Richelieu was right—it is a political tool.” Darcos’s gleaming sword (made by Lorenz Bäumer), which he proudly displays, appears a powerful tool, too, with its stunning gold handle. “I have very generous friends,” he notes.

The chancellor disputes any suggestions that the Académie is irrelevant or elitist—though he understands why some people have that impression. “Sometimes people think we are a bit passé because our members tend to be elected in the latter parts of their careers,” he says. “But I would say we are the opposite of passé. We are here to support creation. When it is time to look for a new member, we search for people who are not enclosed in their own spaces, for people who moved through different parts of society—someone articulate, sensitive to culture, with an appetite for it.” And if a candidate puts his own hat in the ring, does he stand a chance? Darcos measures his response carefully: “Caution dictates it is better to be asked. The prudent thing is to be on our radar. But there are daredevils . . .” he says, raising his prominent eyebrows.

It has been speculated that, thanks to innumerable magnificent bequests and gifts over many centuries, the Académie is colossally rich. Rumors are rife, but figures are hard to come by—”It has never been very transparent about its finances,” I was told by the museum director. That said, gifts in more recent times have been well disclosed, such as a 20-million-euro bequest from Liliane Bettencourt, France’s wealthiest woman when she died, in 2017, to construct a new auditorium.

The French journalist Daniel Garcia investigated the institution in the 2014 book Coupole et dépendances, and reported that the Académie and the Institut de France possess around 1 billion euros in securities alone, and much more than that in properties and land, including a good chunk of Paris (about 40 prime buildings), hectares of forest land, and numerous historic chateaux, some stocked with staggering art. Foremost among them is the extraordinary Chantilly, whose painting collection is second in importance in France only to that of the Louvre.

According to Garcia, “opacity reigns supreme” at the Académie when it comes to its financial reports; he also questioned whether its vast endowment has been managed efficiently enough (though he did not uncover any malfeasance). De Broglie did not respond to Garcia’s interview requests.

“It has grown to be a very wealthy institution,” Darcos acknowledges. But when I ask for details, he says, delicately, “C’est très compliqué.” Many of the assets and properties in its portfolio drain cash rather than generate it, he explains, citing, as an example, Chantilly, which was bequeathed to the Institut by the Duc d’Aumale in 1886. In 2005, the Institut entered into a long-term partnership with His Highness the Aga Khan to finance the huge costs for its maintenance and restoration.

On this, as on everything, the Académie takes the long view. “We’re called immortals, but it’s a joke, of course. Who will remember us?” says Pierre Rosenberg. “It’s the institution that’s immortal.” Carrère d’Encausse says simply, “We are called the immortals because we have to make sure the French language never dies.”

Still, there are occasionally deadlines to consider. Sir Michael Edwards is cautiously optimistic that work on the ninth edition of the Dictionnaire, begun in 1986, will be completed in 2021. “But time will tell,” he says. Spoken like a true immortal.

https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2018/09/academie-francaise-members-france