French cultural action in the world : 150 years of experiences

by François Chaubet ( université Paris Ouest-Nanterre)

François Chaubet is an expert in intellectual and cultural history. His work is focused on European intellectuals during the interwar period and on French sociology post-1945. François Chaubet wrote Michel Crozier’s autobiography (Les Belles Lettres, 2014). He has also wrote several articles and books on French foreign cultural policy, including one study of the Alliance française published by L’Harmattan in 2006. He served as editorial director of a collaborative book on the role of French culture in the world (L’Harmattan, 2010) and co-wrote Histoire des relations culturelles à l’époque contemporaine (A Colin, 2013) with Laurent Martin.


Culture has always been a means of accessing the world. The final phase of globalization, which we have been experiencing since the 1980s, reinforces the role culture plays in the generalized process of exchange/lending/imitation. The more populations and individuals cohabitate in close proximity to one another, the more intercultural exchanges will gain in importance so as to deal with cultural differences (due to the exacerbation of “little differences” and their ensuing narcissism).

When we envision the role of culture in international relations, we can turn to Joseph Nye, American expert in IR, who described culture as an essential element of “soft power” or a State’s attraction power.
Indeed, engaging in political and social action through culture remains a noteworthy French tradition (Louis Réau once wrote about the expansion of French culture in Europe via “Versailles”-type architecture during the 18th century). During the 20th century, one can argue that a medium-sized country such as France was able to pull its weight relative to larger States – in part due to its possession of the bomb – but also thanks to its public discourse regarding culture, anchored by a vast network of institutions (currently ranked first in the world).
However, in a political world now multi-polarized and less influenced by European powers, we are witnessing the rise of new players and cultural movements (Japanese and Korean pop; South-American and African fiction writers; Taiwanese and Argentinian filmmakers) who benefit from international recognition, to the detriment of French culture. American cultural players maintain, and even increase, their domination on old media (films and blockbusters) and new media (Internet). In this restrictive context, does French foreign cultural action still have a role to play on an international scale? And to what end? This period of reflection in which we find ourselves has lasted thirty years. The recent creation of the Institut français is inscribed in this timeline.
We will first examine the major steps in the constitution of the French cultural action network, by establishing a broad portrait of French cultural players in the world today. Then, we will question their capacity to ensure the transition from an expansive cultural diplomacy to one of influence.

The construction steps of a cultural network

We can target three major steps in the creation of French cultural action abroad. The first (1883-1940) corresponded to the establishment of French cultural institutions abroad, such as the Alliance française committees, the first French institutes in the wake of World War I (the first Institut was founded in Florence in 1906), and the first lycées (French high schools) established between wars.
The Alliance française, established in 1883, is endowed with the title of non-profit organization as of 1886. It served as a driving force in defining and establishing French cultural action abroad. The Alliance are principally composed of professors and government workers; they invented a new form of decentralized organization (the Alliance française committees located abroad are legally independent of the Alliance française in Paris), in addition to new ways of engaging with an audience (through conferences, lending books, offering grants to schools that teach French). This network of committees was active in Europe and in the Middle East where 100 000 workers were schooled in French institutions (principally Catholic schools). The State intervened in this field as of the beginning of the 20th century, but its engagement was doubled namely during the interwar period, through the augmentation of French institutes and high schools abroad, as well as through new publishing policies (in 1936 and 1947).
A second step occured between 1945 and the end of the 1970s during which the State took over numerous foreign cultural action initiatives. The DGRC was established in Paris and cultural counselor positions in embassies were created in 1947. The Alliance française were placed in the hands of diplomats. However, during thirty years, French cultural action abroad was sustained through generous grants. That being said, these achievements gave way to increasing discomfort at the end of the 1970s. Jacques Rigaud’s report published in 1978 drew dire conclusions regarding the expansion of French culture. This text seems to have inaugurated the final period in French cultural action abroad, in which we currently find ourselves.
Indeed, this report marked an important moment in the history of French cultural action abroad as it raised a red flag regarding its efficiency, as well as its inability to face new challenges rather than resting on its laurels. Amongst the report’s 33 propositions, there are a few stand-out ideas. Jacques Rigaud first criticized France’s occasional paternalistic attitude toward other cultures, and proposed to develop more egalitarian cooperation. The report also casted doubt on France’s ability to manage an international network in an undifferentiated manner. Rigaud defended the need to further professionalize and train cultural counselors. He also advised developing the audiovisual industry, considered until then the poor cousin of foreign cultural action. A few years later, the RFI radio channel was established (1985), as well as the continuously broadcasted TV channel, France 24 (2006).
Following this chronological presentation, we will now examine the contemporary state of French cultural action abroad.

Contemporary key players in French cultural action abroad

Today, 1 700 agents work in the public network of French foreign cultural action (a decade ago, there were 2 000). Unfortunately, the Quai d’Orsay’s budget continues to shrink, though total budgets come close to one billion dollars in 2012. 420 million euros are allotted to French schools abroad and 315 million euros to international audiovisual initiatives. Three general characteristics of contemporary cultural action abroad can be noted.
The first observation is that the network remains balanced by the Instituts on one hand (currently 98 total) and the Alliance française committees on the other (800 total, of which 400 are subsidized by the State). In 2011, the creation of the Institut français furthered the State’s control on the Alliance française, already burdened by administrative procedures (especially with regard to recruiting) imposed by the government.
The second characteristic is determined by the historically decentralized nature of the network established by embassies in their respective country due to their expert knowledge gathered on site. The Institut français attempted to reverse this process by establishing a more centralized form of management. This small institution (144 agents in 2014), allotted with a small budget (46.7 million euros) could not resist the centrifugal force exerted by diplomats who blocked any attempts to impose vertical power.
The third characteristic, in line with Rigaud’s report, touches on the professionalization process of French agents in foreign cultural action. As such, film attachés were granted embassy positions in countries with a strong tradition in the industry (namely in Asia), as was the case for visual arts attachés (in London and Berlin, for example). 30 libraries were also established. This process also affected the Alliance française staff further trained, be it the teaching corps or the managerial branch (directors of Alliance). Gone were the days which demanded that a French teacher be the wife of an expat, full of good will but ultimately incompetent.
Due to a lack of centralization, the Institut français thus directed its initiatives (as did the Fondation de l’Alliance française) toward the transmission of professionalization norms and increased technical assistance (digitalization). As such, the Alliance libraries underwent a general modernization process as of 2000, subsidized in part by the Fondation Alliance française created in 2007. A quality charter (composed of 200 criteria) was established by the Alliance française in collaboration with the MAE. In addition, new programming tools were installed in the Institut français so as to provide a more comprehensive understanding of French cultural action abroad rather than considering these initiatives by silos (disciplines). However, France’s foreign cultural action continues to suffer from the absence of centralization and governance as put forth in other countries (British Council, Goethe Institute).


Foreign cultural action and the transition from an “expansive” model to one of “influence”

The idea of “expansion” posits a model that is completely unattainable today: unilateral action serving as a symbol of the presupposed superiority of French culture. This model also reflects a total disconnect between culture and economy, as well as with politics to a certain extent. We can undoubtedly assume that at an age of soft power and the omnipresence of cultural industries, isolating culture from these others spheres is naïve and unproductive. However, the notion of “expansion” also involved a more interesting dimension: leading an initiative in the long term. Let us examine the operation of the foreign cultural network as developed until the 1980s.

Three characteristics of the “expansive” network abroad

The first characteristic is associated to the network’s material presence in the medium and long term, as exemplified by the instituts, lycées and Alliance. This long-term involvement is reflected by the creation of institutions that carry the living memory of French presence in a specific city or country (such as the Institut de Kyoto), but that also exert a powerful influence in remodeling the network.
As of the end of the 19th century, this network was conceived on a global scale, despite the relative privilege of certain regions in the world, and ensuing inequalities. As such, from the interwar period to the 1980s, the Alliance française were principally anchored in Latin America, representing 50% of the Alliance staff in 1982. The French high schools were mainly established in Europe and northern Africa. The network’s shift toward Asia and Africa dates back to the 1980s, a reflection of the Alliance française’s transition (staff representation of 18.7% and 17% respectively for these two regions), while staffing in Latin America fell to 34.2%.
Finally, the third characteristic: this network’s goal was to spread French culture through the instruction of the French language. For instance, the Instituts immediately offered language courses despite serving principally as research tools. Evidently, these teaching policies, once considered the elite path to French literary culture, have changed greatly, despite still existing to a certain extent today. Currently, the Alliance française offer more courses to help tourists prepare their trip to France or to transition into a French company abroad. These language policies have been stagnating since the 1970s as a consequence of the dominant position of the English language (and at times of Portuguese in Spanish-speaking Latin America and vice versa) in high school and university language programs across the world. In 1996, 11% of German students learned French, 3.4% in Russia, 3.3% in Argentina, 2.8% in Spain.
Cultural institutions abroad must thus redesign their services in a context in which France no longer carries its historically central position. In American universities, Spanish language courses outnumber French ones; furthermore, highly ranked students, who once studied French, are now learning Chinese.

Two ideological choices in the network’s understanding of “expansion”

The first credo carried by the network was the belief in the intrinsic greatness of French culture. As a consequence, culture and politics were distinct, and the network’s agents believed they acted independently of politics (or of propaganda). This was both a strength (disinterested involvement) and a weakness (politics are bound to reemerge elsewhere). Historically, this separation served as a great strength within the Alliance française, often escaping the accusation of dealing with politics, as the local committees were legally not French. This is what explains the rapid rise of Alliance française in China during the 1990s, while the institut français were not authorized to settle locally.
According to the second credo, these French initiatives were open to all audiences, or at least in theory. Consequently, the Alliance française in Latin America engaged not only with the wealthy elite but also with middle and lower class populations. Evidently, this universalism, which inspired the creation of numerous cultural institutions abroad, ran out of public funding in the 1970s during the financial crisis.
As of the 1970s, voices emerged criticizing the network’s propensity of being all over the place. Critics claimed that institutions welcomed all audiences in an undifferentiated manner, and attacked the all too narrow intellectual content offered in these cultural institutions, centered on French literary culture. Joining these “internal” criticisms were “external” ones, attacking the French cultural model then acutely put into question as of the 1980s, as globalization processes increasingly favored new cultural players. The rise of Iranian and Asian film industries, as well as the emergence of South American and African literature, of Japanese and Korean pop music, of Chinese and Indian visual artists, illustrate new globalized cultures and cultural exchanges. Be it in visual arts or intellectual productions, the French presence became increasingly thin; in 2007, of the 100 most recognized visual artists, only 4 were French. Again, of the 100 most influential intellectuals, only four were French according to a 2005 Anglo-Saxon ranking.
As of the 1970s, these internal criticisms and external oppositions spurred new thoughts regarding French “influence”.


Influence, and rapid and pragmatic cultural policy initiatives

New defining principles linking politics to culture

The first characteristic of a policy of “influence” relates to the target population sought by cultural initiatives. There are the “decision makers”, experts in a field (architecture/design/theater, etc.). The initiatives must also welcome and promote foreign cultural players to exert further influence. In this respect, France has greatly changed the past 30 years; the country, often criticized for remaining in a protectionist past and replete with cultural arrogance, has opened itself immensely to the rest of the world. Aside from Paris, the French cultural capital, there are other examples of France’s openness to the world through the arts. Indeed, the Avignon festival (and French theater in general; nb: French national theaters rank number 1, welcoming 20% of foreign productions between 2000-2010 and prove very welcoming to foreign stage directors) has opened itself to foreign directors in the past 20 years. A similar process has occurred in the film industry: as of the 1980s, producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier welcomed and co-financed numerous foreign directors. It was no coincidence that during the GATT discussions of 1993 regarding the inclusion (or exclusion) of audiovisual industries in the negotiations, that key French players managed to gather their European colleagues’ support (Wim Wenders, Scola, Fellini) to block American negotiations and to promote the notion of “cultural exception”.
With regard to the visual arts, the FRAC welcome numerous foreign artists. The Institut français pursues this policy through its “Focus” programs dedicated to foreign professionals (recently targeting curators).
Furthermore, a former audience is once again being targeted: foreign students. Today, this population is an important source of revenue for host countries (in 2004, 7% of English universities’ revenue stemmed from foreign students’ fees). In 2015, Laurent Fabius spoke of attracting 700 000 foreign students to France (there are currently 240 000). In this regard, the challenge will be to attract students coming from outside the traditional francophone pool (Morocco and Algeria represent to greatest number of foreign students), so as to attract new populations (Chinese students represent the third nationality of foreign students). Thus rises the question of offering English language courses to these new non-francophone students. This question might actually be addressed, as 500 Master programs of the English language already exist.
Another choice audience to exert policies of influence is think tanks. These networks combine leaders in academia, politics and economics, and claim a key role in political-intellectual discussions within Anglo-Saxon countries. Historically endowed with senior public servants, France has not deemed it necessary to develop such networks. Those that already exist are small in size and poorly financed relative to their foreign counterparts.
Indeed, the second characteristic of the “influence” model deals with initiatives that rely on networks (think tanks versus universities) rather than on institutions. Knowledge systems rely on networks, and digital outlets play an important role.
A third characteristic takes into account France’s ability to exert influence on defining norms and implementing large-scale technical projects. Amongst these norms are those adopted by the UNESCO (the 2015 Convention) on cultural diversity, an undeniable achievement spurred by French and Canadian diplomats. Multilateralism and governance (collaboration between State and private players) have become the new framework for diplomatic negotiation; France’s key role in the 2000 UNESCO negotiations proves its ability to act within a multilateral arena. Furthermore, certain technical norms influence numerous aspects of globalized activities: accounting agencies, legal norms, technical and scientific norms when dealing with museums, for example. For instance, Louvre conservationists worked in collaboration with a team in Abu Dhabi to conceive the new “Louvre-Abu Dhabi”, a new kind of universal museum. This institution, that will principally welcome visitors from India and South-East Asia, reveals the power of France’s influence model founded on expert know-how exported in a region bound to play a pivotal role between the East and West.
A final characteristic of this new plan of action deals with the digital world, which sparks numerous debates and enlivens the diplomatic profession while influencing foreign cultural action.

Toward a new cultural model (mainstream) guided by new players (non-diplomats)?

The model previously described does not put into question the fundamental primacy of professional diplomats in exerting the “influence” model. However, is this the most appropriate, effective model? Journalist Frédéric Martel formulated this question in his book titled Mainstream. Martel’s point of view differs radically from that described above. In his perspective, a new model should focus on media and should dissociate culture from politics by hiring “professionals” (better equipped for cultural negotiation with regard to economics and law) independent of the Quai d’Orsay system. Martel thus calls for the creation of “cultural industry headquarters” in fifty cities that would be managed by these “professionals”. For instance, he mentions creating positions such as “digital attachés”. He highlights the necessity to take into account debates around the transmission of sports, talk shows and to promote event “buzz”… This would require updating old methods of cultural diplomacy, and solely being in tune with hot topics.
However, does counting on digital data and buzz effects suffice to establish long-term foreign cultural relations? We can express doubt on this matter. Establishing relations of trust, especially when it comes to intercultural relations, requires time and a certain disinterest in the short term, be it with regard to economics, politics or the media. Respecting these different rhythms is important, as is resisting the pull of burning news, as attractive as the buzz may be.
If we take the film industry as an example, it is undeniable that mainstream culture has become a factor of economic and cultural success in the 20th century. However, it does not suffice to establish systemic cultural exchanges. These require other media, whose impact is slower: books, visual arts, theater. In this regard, French culture remains dynamic and attractive, though not with its same historic lore. Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière have in part replaced Sartre and Foucault on American campuses. Not to mention Thomas Piketty and his international success. Modiano and francophone literature have in turn replaced the nouveau roman. A culture of diverse content, perpetually changing: such is the new face of French culture for those who strive to introduce it abroad.

To end this presentation, a pragmatic conclusion would plead for a better conciliation between the “expansion” model – namely its ability to function long-term with a “gardener’s” patience – and the “influence” model, principally its interest in short and medium term efficiency. The shift in favor of the audiovisual industry abroad is now deeply anchored and the shift toward digital cultures is taking place. Advocacy in favor of cultural industries (namely film) has also been a constant of the past thirty years.
Remaining patient in the long-term is undoubtedly a virtue in the construction of successful intercultural relations. These must be built with precaution, listening to one’s interlocutor and his needs, in hopes of establishing trustworthy collaborations. As proof of these long-term effects, certain local Alliance française committees have hired family members over several generations! In a rapidly changing world, we must recognize the importance of virtues such as modesty and patience with regard to “old school” cultural action, though without its sense of superiority. Cultural agents abroad must now manage diverse timelines, at times reflected on diverse cultural levels (scientific culture and media). As such, French cultural action abroad will be able to maintain its dynamism, far separated from its messianic considerations which are now obsolete (“French citizens, if only you knew what the world expects of you” declared Bernanos) or, inversely, from morose ponderings (“why even bother fighting against the English language?”) currently expressed. By resisting disillusionment and systemic fear of decline, France’s soft power cultural policies maintain their ambitious agenda, claiming a noteworthy degree of success.

[french version]


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