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One Story of Academia

Race Lines and the Rhetoric of Distinction through the Académie française


Moussa Traore

One Story of Academia: Race Lines and the Rhetoric of Distinction through the Académie française explores how the word race was historically linked to kings and feudal lords as a sign of elite social distinction, and how the Académie française has embodied that type of distinction in France since its establishment in 1635. Meant to be an undeclared, scholarly, «mysterious» companion to the French monarchy, the Académie created a powerful attraction for the highest classes, inspiring critics of different stripes; considered to be the highest expression of Frenchness, it excluded different groups based on class, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, ideology, and nationality. The self-proclaimed heir to ancient Greek and Roman scholarship, the Académie also claims to represent Europe, the West, and even Humanity. However, as an academic institution, it has experienced «dialectical» arguments between traditional (feudal) elitism, and scholarly elitism as both sought to define French culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. «Trustees of taste» and promoters of purity, the Académiciens and their strong supporters followed the troubled evolution of the word race and of social distinction. Borrowing from inter-European ethnic issues and nationalism, subscribers to the growing «racial» distinction had the features of the colonized analyzed with the French, and by extension, European and Western sense of social distinction in mind. Consequently the colonized ended up at the lowest end of the social scale; in turn, this placement explained the application of European feudal norms of exploitation on the colonies and created the more controversial and dreaded concept of «racism». This book highlights how the significance of language in the French sense of race – as superiority – is at the heart of the Académie française.


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Chapter 5–The Académie and Frenchness before the 18th-Century 73


Chapter 5 The Académie and Frenchness before the 18th-Century When the Dictionnaire de l’Académie was presented to the king on August 24, 1694, acting on the advice of his ministers and counselors, it was almost a decade since Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes with the Edict of Fontainebleau in October 1685. The Edict of Nantes, as we may know, was signed by Henri IV on the 13th of April, 1598 to give the Protestants or Hu- guenots the same rights as the other French people, namely the predominant Catholics. The historian Philippe Sagnac wrote that this Edict, which revoked the Edict of Nantes, abolished the heresy, demolished the temples, closed the schools, took the children away in order to raise them in the Catholic relig- ion, sent the ministers into exile, threatened with hard labor the Huguenots who would leave the kingdom.1 What this means in terms of the two kings is that they represent, a half cen- tury apart, two persisting faces of France: Henri IV who was more tolerant of the Protestants and intent on uniting France as a rather diverse religious country, and Louis XIV who was lured into Catholicism as a divine call to strengthen his power, and was convinced to make France a Catholic country by assimilating the Huguenots by force. These opposing faces of French power and religion have always been in the Académie française. Not only were Conrart and his colleagues—who started doing the work...

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