French Cultural Action In The World: 150 Years Of Experience

French Cultural Action In The World

François Chaubet is a specialist in intellectual and cultural history. He worked in particular on the European intellectuals of the interwar period and on the history of French sociology after 1945 with the biography dedicated to Michel Crozier (Les Belles Lettres, 2014). He also focused his interest on the foreign cultural policy of France through numerous articles and books, including a study on the Alliance française (1883-1940) published by L’Harmattan in 2006, the direction of a collective book on The place of French culture in the world (L’Harmattan, 2010) and the co-writing with Laurent Martin of a History of cultural relations in contemporary times (A Colin, 2013).

Culture has always been a gateway to the world and the last phase of globalization we have been through since the 1980s reinforces its role in the widespread process of exchange / borrowing / imitation. The closer people and individuals live together, the greater the importance of intercultural exchange in managing differences (the exacerbation of the narcissism of “small differences”).
When one considers the role of culture in International Relations, one can cite the American specialist in international relations, Joseph Nye, who spoke of culture as one of the key elements of “soft power” or power of attraction .
In this capacity, to act politically and socially in the international world through the culture, Remains a very French tradition (Louis Reau wrote on the expansion of French culture in Europe through “Versaillaise” architecture in the 18th century). In the 20th century, it can be argued that an average power such as France weighed in the world with a status of “great power” thanks to the Bomb certainly, but also thanks to a voluntarist external cultural discourse supported by a large material network Institutions (the first in the world today).
But in a political world that has become multipolar and less marked by the European powers, we have witnessed the rise for 40 years of new actors and cultural currents (Japanese and Korean pop, South American or African novelists, Taiwanese or Argentine filmmakers) Which benefit from recognition to the detriment, Relatively, of French culture. As for the American actor, it maintains and even accentuates its dominance on old (cinema and “blockblusters”) and new media (Internet). In this context of a double tongue, does the French foreign cultural action still have a role to play? And to say and do what? We are in fact in the course of an interrogation that spans over thirty years. The recent creation of the French Institute is part of the average temporality of this questioning.
We will see first of all the major steps in the constitution of this network while establishing the (simplified) portrait of the French cultural actors today.

The steps of building a network

Three main stages can be distinguished in the functioning of the French external cultural action. The first (1883-1940) corresponded to the setting up of the network of French institutions abroad, French Alliance committees, first institutes French in the eve of the First World War (the first Institute was that of Florence in 1906), the first French lycées installed in the inter-war period.
The French Alliance, founded in 1883, a private association recognized as a public utility in 1886, played a leading role in defining and realizing this external French cultural action. Consisting mainly of professors and senior officials, It invented a decentralized mode of organization (the French Alliance overseas committees are legally independent from the Alliance Française de Paris), modalities of intervention (conference, distribution of books, granting of grants to Schools teaching French). This network of committees was active mainly in Europe and the Near East where 100,000 pupils were enrolled in French schools (mainly Catholic schools). The State did not really intervene in this field of external action until the beginning of the twentieth century, but its action was considerably reinforced in the inter-war period with the multiplication of French institutes and lycées abroad or By a book policy (in 1936 and 1947).
A second stage took place between 1945 and the end of the 1970s, which resulted in a strong nationalization of external cultural action. A management was created in Paris (DGRC) and posts of cultural advisers in the embassies were created in 1947. The Alliance was more subordinate to the directives laid down by the diplomats. But for thirty years, thanks also to quite generous budgets, French culture abroad was strongly supported. However, successes gave way to a growing unease in the late 1970s. A report, that of Jacques Rigaud in 1978, established a rather bleak observation on the “radiance” of French culture. This text seems to have inaugurated the last episode of the French cultural external action in which we are undoubtedly still.
This report was, indeed, an important moment in the history of French cultural action abroad, since it gave a cry of alarm on its effectiveness, on its retrograde inclination to maintain the illusions of a Past glory rather than prepare for new challenges. Among the 33 proposals, there were some ideas.Jacques Rigaud first denounced the often paternalistic attitude of the French towards other cultures, and he suggested, as a corollary, the idea of ​​proceeding more through egalitarian co-operation. The report also cast doubt on the possibility of continuing to manage an undifferentiated global network. He advocated the need to further professionalize agents with amateur behavior very often. He also advocated the development of the audiovisual sector, which until then had remained the poor relation of external cultural action.
A few years later, radio RFI was born in 1985 and continuous television, France 24, in 2006. After this very rapid chronological panorama, it is necessary to examine what is the photo, in 2015, of this galaxy of actors Cultural activities.

The actors of the external cultural network today

1700 agents today make up the public network of external cultural actors (2000, ten years ago). The budgets of the Quai d’Orsay, alas, have continued to shrink, although the overall sums are not negligible with almost one billion euros in 2012. 420 million are allocated to the teaching of French abroad and 315 million for the audiovisual sector. Three general characteristics can be indicated.
First, the network remains dual with the Institutes (98 today) on one side and the French alliances on the other (800 of which 400 are subsidized approximately). The creation of the French Institute in 2011, however, helped to accentuate the control of the French State over the French Alliance, which was already the subject of many procedures (in recruitment in particular) set by the public authorities.
The second feature is the historically fairly decentralized nature of the network in which the embassies played the key role on the spot by virtue of their fine knowledge of the terrain. The French Institute has tried to reverse this pattern of action by trying to introduce a new form of centralization. A small structure (144 pc in 2014) with a low level of funding (46.7 million euros), it was unable to resist the centrifugal forces exerted by the diplomats in office and who successfully prevented such an attempt to verticalize. The third feature, In line with the recommendations of the Rigaud report, touches on the process of continuous professionalization of French actors in this external cultural policy. Film attachés have been created in certain embassies in countries with a strong cinematographic tradition (in Asia in particular), as well as attachés to the visual arts (London 1 , Berlin for example). Book offices (30) were founded. At the same time, the French Alliance staff in France, both in the field of education and in the general management of an institution (for the directors of an alliance), have been seriously professionalized. It is finished when the teacher of French proved to be the wife of an expatriate, full of good will but without skills. In the absence of an authoritarian control by Paris, the French Institute has been oriented towards the dissemination of standards of professionalization and technical assistance (as did the Fondation de l’Alliance Française) The digitization). Thus, in the area of ​​the Alliance Française libraries, a policy of global modernization was launched in the 2000s, financed in part by the Alliance Francaise Foundation’s own budget, which was set up in 2007. A “benchmark” quality (With 200 criteria) was recently implemented by the Alliance française in collaboration with the MAE. Similarly, within the Institut Français, New programming tools have already made it possible to abandon the logic of “silos” (by disciplines) in order to gain access to a better overall geographical view of external cultural action. But the French foreign cultural system is still far removed in its configuration from foreign models where there is a large operator (the British Council, the Goethe Institute), who is in charge of external cultural action.

The external cultural action and the transition from the “radiation” model to that of the “influence”

The idea of ​​”radiation” presupposed a totally outdated aspect today, an action of unilateral type symbol of the supposed French cultural superiority. It also reflected a total disconnection of the cultural and the economic and also probably a relative disconnection with politics. In the era of soft power and the ubiquitous cultural industries, it can be estimated that this isolation of the cultural dimension of all other dimensions is now naive and unproductive. But the idea of ​​”radiation” also implied, nevertheless, a more interesting element, that of an action to be carried out over the long time. Let us recall the deployment of the external cultural network until the 1980s.

Three characteristics in the deployment of a “radiating” external network

The first aspect of this network concerned its material presence envisaged over the medium and long term, whether it be institutes, lycées or alliances. This long-term investment has resulted in the creation of institutions that have been a living memory of the French presence in such and such cities or countries (as in the case of the Kyoto Institute) To exert a strong constraint in the hypothesis of necessary remodeling of the network. The “concrete” was therefore a force and sometimes also a weakness when it hinders operations of geographical redeployment.
At the end of the nineteenth century, this network was envisaged on a world scale, even if certain regions of the world were always more or less privileged.Thus the Alliance française, From the interwar years to the 1980s, was anchored mainly in Latin America with 50% of the workforce in 1982. The French lycées, meanwhile, were established mainly in Europe and the Maghreb. The redeployment of the network to Asia and Africa dates back to the 1980s in the image of the Alliance française, which in 187% and 17% Fell to 34.2% 2 .
Finally, the third element, this network had the ambition to spread French culture through the learning of French. The Institutes, for example, had the task of giving language courses from the outset, whereas they were, of course, above all instruments of a scientific policy. obviously, This policy of learning French as a royal road to access to the great literary culture has changed a little, if not changed, even if it subsists in part. The French alliances today offer more and more courses to prepare a short stay in France or to help integrate into a French company established abroad. Above all, this policy of language has suffered since the 1970s from the terrible fall of French in the face of the advancement of English (sometimes Portuguese in Latin America Hispanic and vice versa) in most secondary and university systems in the world. 11% of German pupils learned French in 1996, 3.4% in Russia, 3.3% in Argentina and 2.8% in Spain.
The external cultural institutions must therefore rethink their offer among the public in a context where, moreover, French culture does not seem as central as it used to be. In the American university, Spanish dominates at the present time; And very good students, who still tend to follow French curricula, are increasingly abandoning them for learning Chinese.

Two ideological choices of the network in the approach in terms of “radiation”

The first credo that animated the actors of the network was the affirmation of the greatness of French culture in itself. Thus a relative decoupling between culture and politics was posed, and the actors of the network acted without having the impression of making “politics” (or propaganda). It was both a force (an idea of ​​disinterestedness) and a weakness (to hide the politics behind the door, it comes back out of the window). Historically, it was one of the great forces of the French Alliance to have escaped, most of the time, from the accusation of acting politically since the local committees were legally non-French. This explains the rapid growth of the French Alliance in China in the 1990s when French institutes were not allowed.
According to the second creed, France addressed itself (in theory at least) to all publics. Thus the Alliance française in Latin America was able to reach not only the rich elites but also a whole public of middle classes sometimes modest.
Obviously, this universalism, which inspired the opening of a multitude of cultural structures abroad, ended by exhausting the finances of the State at the time of the economic crisis of the 1970s . Critics, from the 1970s, Then hear about this deployment all over the place. They denounced the reception too undifferentiated in terms of audiences, the too narrow intellectual character of the cultural contents proposed because it is centered to excess on the literary culture. To these “internal” criticisms was added an “external” contestation of the French cultural model when cultural globalization, Since the 1980s, promotes a whole series of new cultural actors that relativize the place of French culture in the world. The rise of Iranian or Asian cinema, the breakthrough of South American or African literature, the emergence of pop Japanese or Korean as well as Chinese or Indian visual artists illustrate the new global game of cultures and exchanges 3 . Whether one takes the plastic arts or the reputation of the great intellectuals, the French presence is becoming more and more rare; In 2007, only four French visual artists were on the list of the 100 best known artists; There were also only 4 French intellectuals in the list of the top 100 most influential in the 2005 ranking of two Anglo-Saxon magazines.
This set of internal criticisms and external contests thus gradually fostered a new reflection in terms of “influence” from the late 1970s onwards.

Influence and rapid and pragmatic politico-cultural action

New principles of an action that more closely mixes politics and culture

The first aspect of a policy of influence affects the choices of the “targets” to be influenced. Among these are the so-called “decision-makers”, key people in their specialized field (architecture / design / theater etc …). Receiving and promoting the foreign cultural actors that matter is part of this logic of influence.In this respect, France has changed a great deal in 30 years; This country, often taxed in the past of protectionism or cultural arrogance, has opened up enormously to the rest of the world. Apart from Paris as a cultural capital, other major artistic events could be taken as symbols of openness. Thus the Avignon festival (and in general the French theatrical milieu, the national theaters in the lead which host 20% of foreign shows in the decade 2000, Is very welcoming to foreign directors) has been widely open to foreign directors for twenty years. The same approach was followed by the film industry when France, starting in the 1980s around the producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, welcomed and co-financed many foreign directors. It was not by chance that, at the time of the GATT discussion in 1993 on the exit (or not) of audiovisual issues from the negotiating framework, French audiovisual professionals managed to mobilize enormously their European colleagues (Including Wim Wenders, Scola, Fellini) to counter the US negotiator and promote the notion of “cultural exception”.
In the visual arts, the FRAC are home to many foreign artists. The French Institute has recently continued in this direction with its so-called “Focus” programs aimed at professionals (recently, among the curators).
There is also an old target, but one that is of great concern to foreign students. These are also a major source of income for the host country (in 2004, 7% of the revenues of higher education in England were related to the fees paid by foreign students). Laurent Fabius spoke in 2015 of attracting 700,000 foreign students (240,000 today). The challenge here will be to leave the traditional French-speaking basin (the first two countries providing foreign students are Morocco and Algeria) to attract new audiences (the Chinese are already the third nationality for foreign students). The question of an offer of training in English to be proposed for these new non-French-speaking students therefore arises. Maybe even it is already settled since 500 courses of Master in English already exist.
Another audience of choice that an influential diplomacy should strive to touch would be the world of “Think Tanks.” A typical universe of networks where the University, Politics and Economy merge, these organizations occupy a key place in politico-intellectual reflection in many Anglo-Saxon countries.France, historically provided with a very high civil service, has not for a long time considered it appropriate to equip itself with such organizations. Those that exist are still small and relatively unfunded compared to their foreign counterparts.
Precisely, The second aspect of influence covers a mode of action in which networks (the Think Tanks rather than the University) are to be weighed more heavily than institutions. The world of information is precisely a world of networks and intervenes here the place of digital.
And a third refers to the possibility of influencing the definition of standards and the implementation of major technical projects. These standards include, for example, the Unesco standard (the 2015 Convention) on “cultural diversity”, an indisputable achievement of French and Canadian diplomacy in the first place. In a diplomatic world where multilateralism and governance (an association of state actors and private actors) become an indispensable negotiating framework, The negotiation at Unesco in the early 2000s showed that France could perfectly negotiate in a multilateral forum. One can also think of the technical standards which, in various fields, govern large parts of globalized activities, accounting agencies, legal norms, technical and scientific norms when approaching the world of museums. It was the curators of the Louvre who, together with a team from Abu Dhabi, designed the future “Louvre-Abu Dhabi” by co-shaping a museum of universal type. This establishment, which will mainly accommodate tourists from India and South-East Asia, is a good indicator of a policy of influence based on high-level know-how that is exported to a geographical area called Play an increasing role between East and West. Finally, A final aspect of this new action program concerns digital (and therefore in the news). Digital, its culture of debate, is increasingly vivifying the everyday life of the basic diplomatic profession, as well as inspiring the modes of action of external cultural actors.

Go to another cultural model (mass culture) led by other actors (non-diplomats)?

The new path described above does not, however, fundamentally challenge the primacy of professional diplomats in the exercise of “influence” diplomacy.But is this the right means of action, the right lever? The interrogation and the suspicion were formulated by the essayist Frédéric Martel. This one deviates radically on two points of the schema that we have just described. In his view, it is a question of focusing on the media culture as a whole and dissociating the cultural from the political by appointing “professionals” (much more armed in cultural negotiation from both the economic and legal point of view ) Independent of the Quai d’Orsay. It thus calls for the creation of “offices of cultural industries” in a 50 of cities that would be run by “professionals”. It evokes, For example, the creation of “digital attachments”. It therefore points out the need to weigh the battle of television sports rights, to frequent the big talks shows and to provoke the “buzz” … Open and dust the old closets of cultural diplomacy, talk to the world in the language of events , Such would be the new imperatives.
But are digital, buzz enough to put in the long term the external cultural relations? We can doubt it. A relationship of trust, especially in the field of interculturality, presupposes slowness, a certain lack of interest in the short term, both in its economic and political dimension and in the media. At the very least, it is necessary to know how to play different temporalities and not just to follow the last fires of the current events, However shimmering they may be.
If one takes the cinema, one has to admit that mass culture has become in the 20th century a key tool of economic and cultural influence. But it is not enough to anchor cultural exchanges. These need other slow-acting media, book, visual arts or theater. In this field, French culture, although it may not have the luster of yesteryear, is still dynamic and attractive. Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière have partly replaced Sartre and Foucault on the American campuses. Not to mention the phenomenon Thomas Piketty and its global success. Modiano and Francophone literature replaced Le Nouveau Roman. A culture with varied contents and in the process of constant renewal,

At the end of this brief overview, a conclusion of common sense could argue for the reconciliation between the best of the policy of “radiance”, its way of playing the long term with the patience of the “gardener”, and the most interesting of politics Influence “and its concern for short- and medium-term effectiveness. As such, the turning point in favor of the external audiovisual sector is now well established and the orientation towards the digital culture in progress. The defense of the cultural industries (cinema) has also been a constant for more than thirty years. But remaining patient in the long term is undoubtedly a key virtue in building a good intercultural relationship. This is constructed cautiously, listening to others and its desiderata, In order to hope to benefit from his confident collaboration. Proof of a subtle accumulation of time, some local committees of the French Alliances recruit sometimes on several generations of the same family! In a world of perpetual acceleration, graces are restored to the virtues of modesty and patient cultural action “to the old”, but rid of its tattered superiority. Juggling on the various temporalities, sometimes also on the various cultural levels (scientific culture and media culture) is today the obligation addressed to the external cultural actors. Then, outside French cultural action can retain its dynamism, far from the messianic considerations of formerly obsolete (the Frenchman, if you knew what the world expects of you from Bernanos) or, conversely, Morose ruminations (the nagging “to fight against English”) today. Without succumbing to the sirens of declinism and discouragement, the policy of French soft soft power maintains its ambitions with some success.