This interview is dated November 20, 2014.
You are a great ambassador of the French language. Do you consider it as a heritage?
Yes, because language belongs to an essential unifying virtue that cements our differences. As perpetual secretary of the French Academy, I travel a lot, but I don’t know of any country where people argue so passionately about vocabulary, the feminization of functions or spelling. Remember the success of Bernard Pivot’s famous annual dictations!
You are also committed to the defense of sacred heritage…
I currently chair the defense committee of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés church, one of the oldest churches in Paris, founded in 543. It is crumbling under the weight of centuries and restoration work has stalled. Its parish priest, Father Benoist de Sinety, appealed for donations to keep it in good condition. A real challenge that I relay as best I can. I have the same concern for the French Academy: it is believed to be very rich, but it lives on patronage. It is difficult for me to find donors to preserve an intangible asset, the language. My task would be easier if I did humanitarian work or medical research. Patrons love great causes, covering famous and visible monuments. It’s easier to find funds for the Sainte-Chapelle than for a mountain church. I admire the tenacity of your readers and the commitment of your newspaper to save the regional heritage which would disappear without their support. There is no small or large sacred heritage!
Roman or Gothic, which is your preference?
The smallest Romanesque chapel in Saintonge bears the same aspiration to beauty as our Gothic cathedrals. Religious art is the romance of our nation. An entire society has come together to build these places of worship, sometimes over several generations. When I enter these sanctuaries, I feel this tremendous collective and spiritual momentum that has spanned the centuries.
Just as the French language has been enriched throughout history…
The French language owes a lot to women, you know! Even if the French Academy, founded in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu, was closed to them for a long time and it was not until 1980 that the writer Marguerite Yourcenar entered it! Protectors of poets, hostesses of writers and scholars, holding a salon for refined oratorical jousts, putting the subtlety of their thought at the service of the map of Tenderness, women, caricatured by Molière in The ridiculous Precious, are great ambassadors of our language.
A heritage in danger today…
The statistics are reassuring: nearly 300 million people speak French in the world. Our language is renowned beyond our borders for its clarity and the subtlety of its vocabulary. This is why all of Europe appropriated it three centuries ago. French then became the language of diplomacy, of the dissemination of ideas, of the art of conversation, from Berlin to Saint Petersburg. The danger today comes from within. It is less the invasion of French by English words that threatens us than the casualness of our elites. From now on, in the media, one “solves” the problems, the advertisers “positive” and the academics “format” their programs. This technocratic jargon is not shared by our fellow citizens, who care about defending French. The success of the section “To say or not to say” on the website of the French Academy testifies to the taste of our compatriots for our linguistic heritage.
Where does this passion for French come from?
I am a daughter of immigrants. When I was born, my parents chose to speak to me in Russian so that the first language I heard was that of my origins. When I was 4 and a half, they entrusted me to a friend who didn’t speak a word of Russian and I found myself on vacation on a Breton beach, surrounded by children. Three months later, I was speaking French, reading it and reciting La Fontaine’s fables by heart. From the start, French has represented freedom and the key to being connected to others. I have never forgotten him, I do not forget him today when I am responsible for defending him.
Do you feel more French than Russian?
France is my land of welcome and this welcome, I return it by a total belonging, an unconditional support for its culture and its heritage. When former President Yeltsin offered me Russian citizenship, I replied that I had only one passport and that he was French. I am very attached to our country, to the memory of its buildings.