Oldest guardian of French language dies at 103

Rene de Obaldia, a writer and member of the Académie Française charged with protecting the French language, has passed away.

René de Obaldia, a play-write and member of the Académie Française, pictured in 2003.
René de Obaldia, a play-write and member of the Académie Française charged with protecting the French language, has died at the age of 103.(Photo by JEAN-PIERRE MULLER / AFP)

The oldest member of the venerable Académie Française, the official guardian of the French language, has died aged 103, the institution said on Thursday.

Rene de Obaldia, a poet, novelist and playwright, had been a member of the Académie for over 20 years.

At 98, he published his last book, “Pearls of Life”, a collection of quotes that included the proverb: “If you want to reach 100 you should start young.”

De Obaldia was born in Hong Kong in October 2018 of a French mother and Panamanian father, grew up in Amiens in northern France, and then made it to Paris to develop his literary talent.

He became one of France’s most successful playwrights, and was sometimes compared to Irishman Samuel Beckett or Romanian-French writer Eugene Ionesco for his sharp humour and unconventional style.

“I’ve always had a sense of ridiculousness, which helped me keep certain things at a distance,” he said in a 2008 interview.

Outside of France de Obaldia was best-known for his plays which were translated into English and dozens of other languages.

The Académie Française, founded in 1635, is tasked with debating, and deciding on, the officially approved use of French.

Over the centuries some of the most eminent writers in French have been elected to its 40-strong council although some of the greats — including Charles Baudelaire and Emile Zola — were never admitted.

The Académie’s members, known as “The Immortals”, are replaced only after they die.

READ MORE Five things to know about the Academie française

One of the Académie’s main preoccupations is the defence of the French language against incursions from English, especially American English.

With some success: Most French people accept the ruling that computers should be called “ordinateurs” although they will refer to their portable device as “le laptop”.

But the French “mel” or “courriel” for e-mail never caught on beyond government websites, and French people call a recently-founded successful company “une start-up” defying the Académie which says it should be called “jeune pousse” (young sprout).

READ MORE Why are the French so protective of their language?

More recently, the Académie has challenged the government over the use of English on national ID cards.

In 2020 it ruled that Covid, called “le Covid” by most people, was actually a feminine noun requiring the definite article “la”.

It has yet to take a stance on the increasing use of “le woke-isme” and the gender-neutral pronoun “iel” which is increasingly used to refer to non-binary people.

Member comments

  1. The lack of an IT in French is, perhaps, the only ridiculous failure.
    Granted it’s not the only romance* language where it’s glaringly absent.


    A French person will always know, however good your vocabulary and accent, the moment you stray into a word where you get the gender wrong … “ahahah! You are not French!!!

    The only other time I got a stare was years ago when I asked a Policeman on traffic duty, which on ramp I need for Reims (I pronounced it “Reeeems”). It is actually pronounced how an American says France without the F sound. (Rance?)

    And WHY is the word Francais masculine? Yet, the (French) word France is Feminine!

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Paris street art legend Miss.Tic dies aged 66

Miss.Tic, whose provocative work began cropping up in the Montmartre neighbourhood of Paris in the mid-80s and made her a pioneer of French street art, died on Sunday aged 66, her family told AFP.

Paris street art legend Miss.Tic dies aged 66

Radhia Novat grew up in the narrow streets in the shadow of Sacre-Coeur basilica, the daughter of a Tunisian father and a mother from Normandy in western France, where she began stencilling sly and emancipatory slogans.

Her family said she had died of an unspecified illness.

Other French street artists paid tribute to her work.

On Twitter, street artist Christian Guemy, alias C215, hailed “one of the founders of stencil art”. The walls of the 13th arrondissement of Paris – where her images are a common sight – “will never be the same again”, he wrote.

Another colleague, “Jef Aerosol” said she had fought her final illness with courage, in a tribute posted on Instagram.

And France’s newly appointed Culture Minister, Rima Abdul Malak, saluted her “iconic, resolutely feminist” work.

Miss.Tic’s work often included clever wordplays — almost always lost in translation — and a heroine with flowing black hair who resembled the artist herself. The images became fixtures on walls across the capital.

Miss. Tic with some examples of her work. Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP

“I had a background in street theatre, and I liked this idea of street art,” Miss.Tic said in a 2011 interview.

“At first I thought, ‘I’m going to write poems’. And then, ‘we need images’ with these poems. I started with self-portraits and then turned towards other women,” she said.

Miss.Tic also drew the attention of law enforcement over complaints of defacing public property, leading to an arrest in 1997.

But her works came to be shown in galleries in France and abroad, with some acquired by the Paris modern art fund of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, according to her website.

And cinema buffs will recognise her work on the poster for Claude Chabrol’s 2007 film “La fille coupee en deux” (“A Girl Cut in Two”).

For a spell she was a favourite of fashion brands such as Kenzo and Louis Vuitton.

“So often it’s not understood that you can be young and beautiful and have things to say,” she told AFP in 2011.

“But it’s true that they sell us what they want with beautiful women. So I thought, I’m going to use these women to sell them poetry.”

Her funeral, the date of which is still to be announced, will be open to the public, said her family.