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'Worse than foreigner' Briton admitted into top French body

PARIS -- Sacre Bleu! On Thursday a Briton was finally formally admitted into France's top body charged with preserving the purity of the Gallic tongue.

Or so said Michael Edwards during his maiden address to the Academie Francaise, a hallowed body of 40 members known respectfully as “The Immortals.”

“By opening the doors of your illustrious establishment, you are welcoming in its heart someone who is worse than a foreigner: an Englishman,” said the 74-year-old literature professor from Barnes in southwest London.

“The British would also like to have an institution that defends the English language, especially from Americanisms,” he said.

“It's an earthquake, a revolution, a Briton at the Academie,” joked French writer Frederic Vitoux as he welcomed Edwards.

In a more serious vein, Vitoux spoke of “the coexistence within you of English and French, Shakespeare on the one hand and Racine on the other.”

Edwards was voted into the academy on his third try in February, beating Jean-Noel Jeanneney, a former minister and president of Radio France.

“I am very happy that I became an academic and my countrymen are very proud. A Brit has forced open the doors of the Academie,” he told AFP earlier in an interview.

“It's a sort of victory for the English,” he said. “The Queen (Britain's Elizabeth II) knighted me partly because of this.”

Married to a Frenchwoman, Edwards has written several acclaimed books in French and English.

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

The bilingual academic, who has dual nationality, taught at Britain's Warwick University until 2002 and at France's prestigious College de France in Paris, where he held a chair from 2002 to 2008.

The academy's statutes do not contain any restrictions relating to the nationality of its members.

“French is not just another language. It's another way of understanding the world, a way of being, of sensing emotion,” Edwards said in an interview after his election.

He said the French felt their language was being “invaded” by English — “a kind of Anglo-American small talk, which isn't really elegant English at all.”

The academic said he fell in love with French very early on.

“My first contact with French was when I was 11,” he said recalling his school days and adding: “I was gobsmacked.”

He said he did not think he would be viewed as “a Trojan horse” in the academy, whose tasks include advising which new words should be entered into the French dictionary and studiously defending French against foreign impurities, especially English.

The Academie Francaise, founded in the 17th century by Cardinal Richelieu, counts several other foreign-origin members, including Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf, Haitian-born Canadian author Dany Lafferiere and Algerian-born novelist Assia Djebar.

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