Reorganization and Reconceptualization

The tenure of Bernard Kouchner as minister of foreign and European affairs in the Sarkozy government saw another reorganization of France’s cultural diplomacy in 2010 designed to better address the challenges of using cultural and scientific actions to heighten French presence in the world (Kouchner, Not surprisingly, this refoundation of French cultural diplomacy was in line with the various components that have defined such efforts historically. In essence, the Institut frangais placed existing French cultural and linguistic programs under one agency. Why was this organizational reform necessary? Kouchner saw the Institut frangais as part of France’s “diplomacy of influence,” indeed the most important initiative in decades. Referencing Victor Hugo, the foreign minister expressed that the underlying premise of the reforms was based on more than a nation’s military might: its capacity for winning hearts and minds. Furthermore, a reform was necessary because culture and knowledge play an ever more important role in the world. For Kouchner, this was a battle of “soft power.” Nations realize that if they want to be taken seriously in tomorrow’s world, they must be able to project their culture, promote their language, and influence the agenda of ideas (Kouchner,

This reorganization and privatization did not, however, change the fundamental direction of French cultural diplomacy: the promotion of French civilization and language. As Xavier Darcos emphasized: “The Institut francais is heir to a long tradition. As such it is working to spread and share French language and culture, seeking to convey a message of diversity and dialogue in the world” (Darcos 2011: 8-9). Darcos, the president of the Institut :frangais, further observed: “The French language is the cement that holds other activities together” (Translated from Lane 2011: 10). The restructuring of the programmatic activities that have been associated with the dissemination of French culture abroad was first proposed by Alain Juppe in 1995 in his second term at the Quai dOrsay ( In principle, personnel and financial support was to be greatly expanded in the Kouchner reforms.

LInstitut frangais was designed to work in close relation with the network of French cultural diplomatic actors in 160 nations sponsoring 50,000 cultural events a year. The number and variety of these cultural offices abroad is striking. For example, there are: “101 Insituts francais . . . 125 Institut francais branches . . . 445 subsidized Alliance francaise . . . 27 French institutes for research abroad . . . [and] 478 French schools abroad” (

The newly created Institut frangais will coordinate those efforts through various cultural centers merged into the embassy’s cultural sector. From now on, “Institut frangais” was to be the common name used for all activities concerned with cultural diplomacy. This would be the “brand,” that is, the common name and clear mission that should provide greater visibility for French culture in a globalized world.

The major goals to be achieved by this reorganization are fourfold:

  • 1. the promotion of French culture abroad
  • 2. the promotion and diffusion and teaching of the French language abroad
  • 3. the diffusion of France’s cinematic and audiovisual heritage
  • 4. the promotion of ideas of knowledge and French scientific culture

Overall, the agency will be able to create stronger partnerships and provide greater legitimacy for cultural establishments and commercial enterprises that operate in the external French world.

The Institut frangais is organized as an EPIC (Un Establisement pub- lique “a caractere industriel et comerciaF). Accordingly, the Institutfrangais will be able to operate with greater managerial flexibility and with a business orientation that allows it to operate as a sort of government corporation. The basic thrust of these reforms seem designed to provide the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with greater control over the activities of the large number of cultural institutions that have historically acted autonomously or with semi-autonomy. The intent would seem to achieve the level of central coordination attributed to the British Councils and the Goethe Institutes. The French network of cultural and scientific initiatives abroad constitutes a network that is truly incomparable (Lane 2011: 109). With the creation of the Instituit frangais, French cultural activities around the world would be carried out under a common brand name. This heightens the salience of French cultural diplomacy (Lane 2011: 41). Most important, the aggregation of these efforts under the singular Institut frangais would provide France with a more effective tool to project its symbolic capital.

The creation of the Institut frangais aims to bring under one administrative umbrella the vast array of institutions and activities that represent French cultural diplomacy. Some of these have been noted here such as artistic exchanges, disseminating French ideas, increasing awareness of French cinematographic history, fostering and teaching and showcasing its cultural industries in general including the fashion that bespeaks the craftsmanship, elegance, and style of the French language. But instead of being the preserve of a variety of autonomous organizations, the Institut frangais would coordinate these undertakings. As an agency of the Ministry of Foreign

Affairs, it directly supervises cultural diplomacy (with the cooperation of the Ministry of Culture and Communication). An important caveat to recall; however, is that French cultural diplomacy already has a well-known brand with the Alliance fran^aise. Indeed, it is hard to name an instrument of a nation’s cultural diplomacy that has such strong name recognition and venerable status. The Alliance continues to exist, but subordinate to the Institut fran^ais, that is, without its essentially autonomous status.

The concept of a “national brand” is an idea that has been adapted from the corporate world, especially in its use of advertising techniques. In a sense, there is nothing really new about national branding if thought of as a traditional effort of cultural diplomacy to project a favorable sense of a country’s way of life and artistic/scientific accomplishments. Branding does have a more utilitarian focus than “soft power” in its emphasis on trade and tourism. “Understanding the value of national brands helps countries better understand the investments that they make in areas that affect their global image” ( A national brand should also be credited for its capacity to diminish the effects of any negative stereotypes. For example, an expressed purpose of President Obama’s visit to Mexico in 2013 was to downplay many of the stereotypical images held by Americans about Mexicans (New York Times, May 3, 2013). The rhetoric of Donald Trump regarding Mexican immigrants in the 2015 Republican presidential debates has overshadowed this cultural diplomacy.

France enjoys a positive national brand. It ranked third highest in a recent ranking of 50 countries. Concerning its perceived quality of life, this is ahead of Germany, Italy, Spain, Britain, and the USA, which maintains well-established networks of international cultural activities. “Most people around the globe tend to think of France as a refined and cultured country” ( This is an evaluation that France has promoted for some time. Indeed, “the accumulation and display (and sometimes the creation) of cultural capital for the benefit of the rest of the world had become seamlessly integrated into the doxa of French national identity” (Lebovics: 48). For France to retain a brand that will attract people to visit, invest, and work in the country, it is necessary that the world continue to hold France in high regard for its social, as well as its cultural, environment. What this strongly suggests, and has been argued by several commentators, is France’s need “to harmonize its relations of immigrants of Muslim origin so that they too can begin identifying with French culture” ( The shocking terrorist events in Paris during 2015—the attack on the editorial staff of

Charlie Hebdo and the random murders in a concert hall’s restaurants/ cafes in the XI arrondisment—have profoundly shaken French confidence in the self-perceptions that underlie its national brand.

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