Coda: Which France Is Exported?

What should be abundantly obvious is the persistence of French cultural diplomacy and its commitment to certain fundamental orientation. What can also be noted is France’s unwavering commitment to the value of its specialized brand in the international milieu. In a sense, as has been noted, France was practicing cultural diplomacy avant la lettre; this was illustrated in the royal patronage projected by Francois I as a national policy. The king’s personal collection was a collective repository for objects defining a national aesthetic. Complementing royal patronage was a golden age of theater exemplified by Moliere, Racine, and Corneille, which sanctified the French language. This linguistic pride was formalized by Cardinal Richelieu’s establishment of the Academie jrangaise. The primacy of the French language became a defining element in the construction of national identity.

France sees its international brand as “grandeur and the language,” and these dual emphases have remained remarkably consistent. Admittedly, confidence in the uncontested value of the French language has been shaken by the near hegemonic status of English. Consequently, the mission of the Alliance jrangaise has had to be strengthened, if admittedly employing a defensive strategy. Most recently, French grandeur has come to embrace characteristics other than the beaux-arts. The French international brand increasingly includes products of the cultural industries. These are associated with specialized luxury goods: couture, cuisine, and popular fare, films, contemporary music. This is not to suggest that an emphasis on science is overlooked and technical expertise ignored. French civilization is not simply historical, but it is also a meaningful presence in the contemporary world. The question is which cultural manifestations and styles constitute the nature of its national identity.

This question informs the growing intensity of the debate over what it means to be French. This issue surfaced with the proposal of President Nicolas Sarkozy for a Musee de FHistoire de France, the first national history museum. Immediately, questions were raised: What constitutes “Frenchness” in contemporary France and the politically charged questions of whose history is to be canonized and how (New York Times, March 8, 2011).

A traditional response was that to be French was to participate in French culture. With the largest Muslim population in Europe, however, cultural assimilation is not so easily realized or desired. Most important, do the demands of a unitary national culture preclude the realization of a multicultural society. If Sarkozy’s opinions are representative there would no such societal variegation. “If you came to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is a national community, and if you do not accept that, you are not welcome in France” (New York Times, April 11, 2012).

Sarkozy’s opinions have exhausted the conventions of permissible discourse. The principles of republican France have strongly supported the formation of a centralized state, unified citizenry, and a cultural community. Turning “peasants into Frenchmen,” a project of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, could have a twenty-first century analog in turning “Muslims into Frenchmen.” This requires assimilation into majoritar- ian cultural norms. In principle, citizenship was predicated upon voluntary subjugation to a process that required acceptance of the predominant way of life, volitional criteria, and language. Islamic religious traditions dictate a distinct set of cultural norms that are neither incidental nor quickly abandoned. Since the multi-cultural solution is unacceptable for many given the principles of the Revolution, there is a real cultural impasse. This delimits France’s claims to offer a universally acceptable model for a way of life that underlies much of its cultural diplomacy.

Culture remains at the heart of France’s sense of itself and its place in the world. Exporting civilization has, consequently, been the essence of its cultural diplomacy. This policy orientation has been one of long duration and remarkable consistency in the celebration of the French language. De Gaulle and Malraux understood the importance of French primacy in international culture, whatever its diminished state as a world power, particularly during the Cold War when cultural competition was an element in USA-USSR. competitiveness. What French cultural policy still seeks to resist is Americanization. If one speaks of a French cold war, it is one directed in a non-belligerent way against the hegemony of American culture and the English language.

Cultural diplomacy provided two avenues for such resistance. First, the challenge to American entertainment exports was first countered with “cultural exception”; as noted, this argued that culture was not a commodity like natural resources, and should not be associated with profit imperatives. Second, this specialized and debatable cultural exemption objection was transformed into a broader defense of the necessity of

“cultural diversity” in a globalized world. Entertainment exports could be accommodated (even if with programming quotas); but, most important, nations were entitled to take measures to support indigenous cultural expressions as part of a defense of national heritage. The UNESCO accord was a victory for the valorization of the uniqueness national cultures. It was also opposed to the American assertion that even protectionist measures for local cultural encouragement violated the principles of the trade.

There is a basic problem with the whole notion of branding. As has been touted by the French and largely agreed to by the non-French, there is a recognized French brand. Most succinctly, it is that France is a civilized and cultured nation. (Francois I would be the first to agree). As noted, France is third in the rankings of favorable brands, France is also the world’s leading destination for international tourism. But does the promotion of the French brand no different than a device de marketing for its export commodities? One remembers that the Institut frangais is an EPIC and hence able to engage in commercial activities and make commercial arrangements that would be permitted for a regular government entity. Does this forecast a branding based on marketing campaigns for the cultural industries in popular film, fashion, design, and cuisine as well as film and literature? Would this be at the expense of painting, art, and literature? Is the new French brand a replacement of commodification for patrimony and of a touristic gloss for universalizable values?

French cultural diplomacy has been strikingly consistent. It has enjoyed a consistency of content, sense of self-assurance, as well as an enduring belief in the universality of French cultural values. Its goals have been self-promotional, but are not adversarial. There has been a resistance to American hegemony, especially until its dominance in popular culture. The “Disneyfication” of societal values and the homogenization of distinctive modes of expression, supposedly a result of American popular culture, is a not uncommon argument for the promotion of national patrimony. The UNESCO Accord recognizes a small measure of cultural productionism in the support for the right of governments to promote their distinctive cultural expression and, indirectly, to preserve culture as a way of life. It did not advocate barriers to American cultural products, but simply affirmed the right of countries to promote their own cultural creations. For the USA, this was perceived as a threat to the dominant market share of its entertainment exports. France may have just taken a certain satisfaction in this American perception.

The underlying question in the export of French civilization involves the contentious question of what constitutes the contemporary values of French culture. Which France? One that is unitarian and uniform or one that is pluralistic and multi-cultural? What does it mean to be French? If this does not require specialist knowledge of Pascal to Proust, it does mean to speak French (in some milieux with a sense of le mot just); to imbibe the principles of the Revolution (and acknowledge the dignity of L’Etat); and, to have a French way of life (with, of course, numerous modes de la vie).

French culture does not allow wearing a headscarf at school as a violation of the principle of a secular state. The patois of the banlieus can prove difficult in many occupations (as residence in the banlieus may be a hindrance to mobility). The French vision of itself does not seem to encompass women in burkhas filling the streets of St. Denis. The romanticized scene of a soft lens, backlit Pont Alexandre III in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris provides an alternative reality.

There is certainly a strong element of anti-Islamic bias in all of this; there is, however, also a concern for the necessity of policies of inclusion and accommodation. A society that marginalizes the Islamic French and fails to move against political, social, and cultural disenfranchisement contributes to the growth of radical militancy (Todd 2015). The failure to understand the cultural solace of jihadism for many young dispossessed as a haven in a heartless world is seen as hostility to Islamic values (New York Times, December 18, 2015). The world of the cites (colossal housing projects beyond the peripherique) is not one visited by many Parisians or any tourists. It is a world apart (zones of exclusion) and not part of what is exported as French civilization.

Fundamentally the question is whether there can be an accommodation of two different (and competitive) cultural worldviews and sociopolitical values: modernity and tradition; Republican secularism and Koranic theology. This would require a cultural version of a “compromesso storico,” (to use an Italian term for bridging Communism and Catholicism politically). Such a historic compromise would necessitate an agonizing reappraisal of a venerable, embedded, and accepted civilizational contract of what it means to be French and how the rest of the world views France.

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