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Poet becomes first Briton elected to illustrious Académie Française

Michael Edwards, who writes in English and French, joins eminent guardians of language

A Briton has for the first time broken into France’s most hallowed institution. Michael Edwards, a 74-year old academic and poet, has been elected to the Académie Française, the illustrious protector of the French language.

Mr Edwards said yesterday he was “dancing on air” following his election on Thursday to the 40-seat body whose members are known as the “immortals”.

But death comes even to the Immortals. Professor Edwards owes his seat in the French Academy to the death of the French writer Jean Dutourd, who passed away at the age of 91 in 2011. It was third time lucky for Professor Edwards, a specialist in the philosophy of literary and artistic creation, who failed to be elected to the academy on two previous occasions in 2008 and 2012.

He hopes his contribution will be “to show that the presence of English is not only a threat”. He noted that English became richer by borrowing words from 50 other languages. But he recognises that the French are on the defensive, seeing their language under threat from an English invasion.

But he believes that English can actually help French to develop: “Rather than being a menace, it could help enrich French,” he said in a telephone interview.

Professor Edwards, who is based in France and holds dual nationality, inherits seat No 31. It is the seat previously occupied by the multi-talented Jean Cocteau, the 18th-century philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, and the 17th-century scholar Antoine Furetière, all elected for life.

The Academy, founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu to establish rules to preserve the purity of the French language while making it comprehensible to all, includes as its present members the former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the politician Simone Veil and writer Jean d’Ormesson.

Only two months short of his 75th birthday, Professor Edwards squeaked in to the Academy, which bars academicians aged over 75 from being elected. Christophe Carlier, a historian of the Academy, hailed the institution’s spirit of “renewal”. Mr Carlier told Le Figaro that the Academy risked terminal decline unless it undertook further reforms.

One of the Academy’s most important tasks is to update the French dictionary. The dictionary committee, which meets every Thursday and which Professor Edwards hopes to join, is now considering the letter R.

Professor Edwards was born in Barnes and read modern languages at Cambridge before becoming a working at Essex and Warwick universities. A prolific writer in both languages, he has six books on the go, including poetry in English and French.