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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How to make the most of France’s ‘night of museums’ this weekend

More than 3,000 French museums will stay open long past their bedtimes on Saturday May 14th for the 18th Long Night of Museums.

How to make the most of France's 'night of museums' this weekend

The annual event takes place on the third Saturday in May each year in towns and cities across the whole of Europe. There are temporary exhibitions, themed guided visits, musical entertainment, lectures, concerts, food tasting, historical reconstructions and re-enactments, and film projections. Best news of all, almost everything is free. 

Here’s The Local’s guide to getting the most out of the night:

Plan, plan, then throwaway the plan

Consult the online programme and map out your route. A little preparation will make the night much easier – 3,000 museums will be open long into the night in France, and you don’t want to waste hours standing on a bridge arguing about where to go next. 

The site has suggestions for major cities, including Lyon, Dijon, Bourges, Strasbourg, Lille, Rouen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Marseilles. And four museums that have been closed to the public for years – Musée de Cluny in Paris, the Musée de Valenciennes, the Forum antique de Bavay in Nord and the Musée départemental Albert-Khan in Boulogne-Billancourt – are reopening on the night.

So, decide where you’re going beforehand – then feel free to dump your carefully plotted plan in a bin when you overhear someone else talking about this extraordinary thing they have discovered and go with the flow.

Be patient

When you are consulting the official website, try not to scream. You have to navigate a map rather than a traditional programme format – though, at least, this year it’s broken down in to French regions, which is marginally less frustrating.

It is actually much easier if you know the specific museums you are interested in visiting, as they have individual programmes of events. But half the fun of a night like this is visiting somewhere you’ve never been before.

Wear comfortable shoes and travel light

Wear shoes for the long haul rather than the first impression. There will be distances to cover and you might even find yourself dancing in the middle of a museum. 

And blisters are never a good partner with great art. Leave your skateboard and shopping trolley at home, they will just prove a nuisance when you are going through security checks.

Come early – or late – to avoid endless queues

Arriving at the Louvre at 8pm is always going to mean a giant queue. And nothing ruins a night quicker than spending most of it standing in an unmoving line. Try to escape peak times at the major museums – but check they’re not doing something interesting that you don’t want to miss – hip hop dance classes in the Department of Oriental Antiquities, in the Louvre’s Richelieu wing, for example…

Go somewhere you’ve never been to before

Do a lucky dip. Pick somewhere you’ve never heard of and know nothing about. What about the Musée de Valenciennes, which reopens after years of being closed to the public, for example. Its giving visitors the chance to see its fine art under ultraviolet light – which will reveal things you wouldn’t normally see.

Or you could delve deep into the Aude Departmental Archives, in Carcassonne, and discover the amazing life stories of some of the region’s historical figures

Make it social

Gather the troops, this is a night for multi-generations of family and friends. Art, history and culture, is very much a shared experience and you can usually find something that everyone loves – or hates.

Plan a pitstop

You will always need refreshing and wouldn’t a night of culture be wonderfully enhanced by a delicious picnic on the banks of the Seine, if you’re in Paris. 

Your mind will need a little pause from all the intellectual overload. Find a spot, listen to the music (there’s always music from somewhere) and watch the Bateaux Mouches go by as you eat a baguette with some good local cheese and some saucisson.