(L'Académie française), learned society of France. It is one of the five societies of the Institut de France.
The origins of the academy were in a coterie of literary men who met informally in Paris in the early 1630s to discuss rhetoric and criticism. Recognized by Cardinal Richelieu, the academy received the royal letters patent in 1635 (registered by the Parlement of Paris in 1637). Its aims included chiefly the governance of French literary effort, grammar, orthography, and rhetoric. The membership was soon fixed at 40 (called often, because of their former motto, “the forty immortals”) and was established as self-perpetuating, with a veto of elections reserved to the official protecteur (or patron), later to the state. The first notable act of the society was the criticism of the Cid of Pierre Corneille.
After Richelieu's death (1642) the patronate went (1643) to Pierre Séguier, the chancellor; on his death (1672), King Louis XIV assumed the position of protecteur, which remained ever after a prerogative of the head of the French state. The suppression of the academies in 1793 ended the French Academy; it reappeared in the second class of Napoleon's Institut (1803), and the old name and organization were “restored” in the first division of the Institut of 1816.
The academy has often been accused of literary conservatism, owing to the failure of certain writers to attain membership; the most prominent of these are perhaps Molière, Marquis de La Rochefoucauld, Duc de Saint-Simon, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Stendhal, émile Zola, and Marcel Proust. But not all omissions from the academy roster are attributable to literary criteria, for personal respectability and loyalty to the existing state have always been conditions of membership. The membership of the academy has traditionally included eminent Frenchmen outside the field of literature; some of its members come from France's senior clergy to mark the role of Roman Catholicism in French culture. Today the academy's membership includes women and people of other nationalities who write in French.
The work of the French Academy has chiefly consisted of the preparation and revision of a dictionary (1st ed. 1694, 9th ed. 1992–) and of a grammar. The very conservative attitude of these books toward orthography, new words, and grammatical development has led to much criticism. The academy, however, has never claimed to legislate but simply to record forms; legislation on orthography and grammar was made a function of the minister of public instruction during the Third Republic. The awarding of literary prizes has also been an important function of the French Academy, and in the 19th cent. its nonpartisanship encouraged the general recognition of the academy as a suitable trustee for the distribution of grants and prizes for courage and civic virtue.