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British poet anointed to protect French language

Ben McPartland · 21 Feb 2013, 16:51

Published: 21 Feb 2013 16:51 GMT+01:00

Professor Michael Edwards,73, has been elected to join the 40 so-called "immortals" at the Académie Française. His nomination means he becomes the first Briton ever to join the elite group tasked with protecting the purity of French language.

He was elected in the third round ballot after gaining 16 votes, far more than any of the other candidates. His nearest rival was former government minister and former head of Radio France Jean-Noel Jeanneney, who polled five votes.

Edwards, a respected poet in both French and English, was voted in a year after narrowly missing out on the post by just two votes. He also lost out on the role in 2008 after not receiving enough votes.

At the age of 74, he fulfills his life-long ambition in the nick of time, since the Académie has set an age limit of 75 for candidates. He will be a member for life, hence the title "immortal".

Marc Fumaroli, one of the institute's 40 immortals told The Local on Wednesday that the appointment of Edwards was good news for the Académie and good news for France.

"Michael Edwards is a francophone of the first order. He has a lot of talent and is very well respected here in France, and well liked," Fumaroli said. "It's not the first time we have appointed a foreigner who has chosen to adopt the French language.

"He has an excellent knowledge of literature and his courses are very followed here in France. He has a lot of talent, not just writing but speaking too. He was elected with a very big majority."

Defending the Académie's role to protect the French language, Fumaroli told The Local that it was necessary to protect French - the great language of literature and poetry, as opposed to English which has become "the language of the airport".

"English is not like French, which is a classic literary language. English is a language of communication and convenience. It is not poetic or literary. 

"We need to protect the great classic languages of literature and poetry like French and Italian.

"English too needs to be protected, because it is threatened by its own dominance. It is not the language of the great writers, it is now the language of the airport."

Edwards - staunch defender of French

Edwards joins the esteemed ranks of "immortals" who over the years have included some of France's most famous writers, philosophers and politicians including Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, explorer Jacques Cousteau and current member, the former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

Edwards, is a specialist in Shakespeare as well as 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud and 17th century French dramatist Jean Racine.

With the Académie's main role being to defend and promote the French language, the decision by the "immortals" to allow a British poet to join their venerated ranks may seem a strange one.

However, Edwards is a stout defender of the French language.

"This is a moment of crisis for French and it makes sense, I believe, for the academy to choose someone who comes from, as it were, the opposite camp but has become a champion of the special importance and beauty of the French language," Edwards told the Independent earlier this year.

The Académie is tasked with acting as an official authority on the French language. One of its jobs is to publish an official dictionary. Any rulings it makes, however, are not binding.

Edwards had his first French lesson at the age of 11 at his school in Kingston-upon-Thames outside London before going on to study modern languages at Cambridge. He later became a professor at Warwick University before taking up a role at the prestigious Collège de France.

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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