Inside the Académie française

with Sir Michael Edwards

The Académie française was founded in 1634 under the patronage of Cardinal Richelieu. It was entrusted with “giving precise rules” to the French language and “making it pure”.

In 2013, Sir Michael Edwards became the first ever native English speaker to become a member of the Académie. In France, the 40 members of this select body are known as “the Immortals.”

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An exclusive view

The Académie française is housed in the Institut de France in Paris. Originally built in the 17th century as a school for children of noble birth, the building enjoys a privileged location on the banks of the river Seine, opposite the Louvre Museum.

The Académie is reserved almost exclusively to members, and few French people ever get a glimpse inside the lavish building. In this audio slideshow Michael Edwards presents some its highlights.


Becoming an Immortal

How did an ordinary boy from Barnes, England become a member of one of France’s most prestigious institutions? Edwards recounts his unique journey.

The Académie then and now

The Académie française was set up to unify the French language in a period of territorial and colonial expansion. It has survived revolutions and world wars, but how much has its role changed over time, and how has it responded to the rise of English as the “world language”?


The “Académie françoise” (old French for française) is founded under the patronage of the powerful clergyman and statesman Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII.


Under the auspices of the French monarch, the Académie establishes its headquarters at the Louvre Palace.


The Académie française publishes the first edition of the Dictionnaire it was entrusted to create. It contains 18,000 words.


Amid the turmoil of the French Revolution, and eight months after Louis XVI is executed, “the Immortals” hold their last meeting. Their director hides the body’s founding documents and archives in his home.


France’s new leaders re-establish the Académie française as part of the larger Institut de France, which will include four other Academies. The Institut moves into the building of the Collège des Quatre Nations, on the Left Bank in central Paris.


Victor Hugo is elected a member of the Académie.


Marshal Pétain (elected in 1929) is sacked from the Académie, along with three other members who collaborated with the Nazi regime in occupied France during WWII. His post is left vacant until his death in 1951.


An induction ceremony at the Académie française (for scholar and politician Alain Peyrefitte) is broadcast on French television for the first time.


The Académie française elects its first woman member (novelist Marguerite Yourcenar).


The Académie française launches its website.

Secrets of the Académie

The Académie and the Institut de France are home to several well-kept secrets.

An unusual portrait
Grafted doors
Secret staircase
Missing word
Speak not

‘Villon’: Two poems

A poet as well as a literature scholar, Sir Michael Edwards shares two versions of his ode to François Villon, the 15th century French poet.


  • An interactive report by Joseph Bamat for FRANCE 24
  • Texts and videos by Joseph Bamat
  • Photos by Mehdi Chebil
  • Edited by Benjamin Dodman and Charlotte Wilkins
  • Design and development: Studio graphique France Médias Monde