French cultural policy and democratization abroad ? The Institut français du Royaume-Uni post-WWII

by Charlotte Faucher, PhD student in History, Queen Mary University, London


To what extent is the notion of l’exception culturelle française (French cultural exception) compatible with the concept of cultural democratization? Indeed, while France attempts to present an “exceptional” artistic production to nations abroad, this concept appears at odds with the mission to grant equal access to culture, especially to a “non-audience” (underrepresented, “uncultured” audience members). Ms. Faucher’s argument is original, as the question of French cultural policy abroad has not yet been studied in conjunction with cultural democratization. Faucher proposes to study the Nation’s cultural policy abroad in light of the impact such initiatives have on international populations. She will focus on the UK and attempt to answer the following question in her discussion: populations were targeted by French cultural policy initiatives in the UK in the 1950s?

French and British cultural policies are inscribed in the French-British Cultural convention since 1948, which fosters cultural exchanges between the two nations, without setting guidelines on their modes of operation. Faucher examines the Institut français du Royaume-Uni (IFRU) in light of studies conducted within national cultural institutions, focused on similar topics: social class, age, profession, nationality, and level of proficiency in the French language. However, Faucher notes that not all French cultural productions can be exported, either because they are not a worthy representation France wishes to have of itself, either because they entail a superior level of linguistic proficiency. That being said, the IFRU can be studied as the embodiment of a changing cultural diplomacy in France.

In 1910, Marie d’Orliac founded the Université des Lettres françaises in London. This university dedicated to the wives of wealthy expats was sponsored by the Université de Lille, and was renamed the IFRU in 1913. In 1945, the French government took legal ownership of the IFRU. The centre became a French university abroad, hosting lectures and classes in French, and offering certificates and bachelors. Under the Front populaire government, efforts to bolster French culture and education abroad were subsidized. At the end of WWII, the IFRU was divided into four activities: the French Lycée founded in 1915, university courses, the library, and cultural events – exhibits, conferences, performances, and films.

Faucher notes that domestic French cultural policy expanded more rapidly than did efforts abroad. However, this discrepancy can also be explained by the varying actions led by the directors of French cultural institutions abroad. In 1949, Henri Jourdan, director of the IFRU, mandated that all activities conducted in the Institute be led in French, which in turn restricted the potential audience members of these events. Of the 5000 targeted audience members, only 1000 attended IFRU activities on a weekly basis. Furthermore, Jourdan’s mission was to attract a more intellectual and academic audience, rather than the local socialites adept in the French language. To this end, Jourdan organized a more varied program of activities, offered night courses to widen the audience, and bolstered partnerships with British universities. As such, professors from the IFRU would give lectures in local universities, and in turn, the Institute would welcome exterior lecturers. These conferences were well attended; some of the most notable lecturers were Jean-Pierre Richard, Tristan Tzara, Roland Barthes, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Georges Bataille, and Pierre Mendes France.

In 1950, Jourdan reduced the number of literary conferences provided at the IFRU and increased the lectures pertaining to current events. The director wanted to encourage audience participation and rendered the conferences more dynamic (short films, discussions, projections) shying away from pure theory and abstraction. Jourdan also granted a significant place to music in the IFRU: every Friday, the Institute welcomed lesser known musicians and performances of lost composers. However, these events were attended principally by specialists in the field. As such, theater remained the most democratized art form. The IFRU had a theater company led by Pamela Stirling from the Comédie française; the troupe would provide performances of French plays from the classical repertoire (Molière, Labiche, Musset, and Beaumarchais) to middle and high school students. The IFRU also encourage amateur practices of local university troupes. Finally, the IFRU also fostered the diffusion of French cinema and established a Ciné-Club, led by Frédéric Marx. The creation of the cinémathèque was also meant to diversify the IFRU audience members.

Subsequently, the IFRU was highly modernized in the 1950s. Immersed in an academic mission, the Institute also widened its audience. Nevertheless, the term “democratization” was never mentioned in official IFRU documents, even though greater access to French culture was granted to a more diverse audience abroad. Cultural democratization was part of the IFRU DNA: the physical site of the Institute was modified to welcome a larger audience and to encourage audience-wide discussions. The IFRU was no longer a cultural institution reserved to the elite; it became of intellectual hub open to the entirety of the UK. As such, it appears that the domestic evolutions of French cultural policy had direct repercussions on initiatives led outside of the Hexagon.

To this day, the Institute maintains an important role with regard to the diffusion of French cinema in the UK. However, due to its location, the Institute once again attracts a majority of upperclass Francophiles. Since 2011, cultural democratization has become an official mission of the IFRU, and the Institute has greatly relied on new digital practices to achieve its civil goal: in 2010, the Institute launched the Culturethèque project, a digital platform for the diffusion of French culture abroad.

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