Marketing Marianne: French Propaganda in America, 1900-1940

July 21, 2011

Robert Young’s Marketing Marianne is a history of French ‘propaganda’ activities in the US in the first half of the 20th century.  Propaganda is in the subtitle of the book but I place the word in quotation marks since what he describes would fall squarely within current concepts of public diplomacy.   This was not a subject that I knew anything about and the scale and sophistication of the French effort came as a surprise.

My thoughts on the case fall under  two major headings.  Firstly, the importance of context for public diplomacy activity.  Secondly, what was missing from the French efforts in the interwar period that we might add today?

Context Matters

The impact of public diplomacy activities are crucially shaped by their context.  What might be a good initiative in one situation will be totally ineffective in another.  In the case of France’s work in the US context comes to the fore in at least three ways.

Firstly, there is the American context.  France could draw on a considerable number of American Francophiles.  Particularly among the east coast elite French culture was widely appreciated.  On the other hand after the First World War there was a high level of American suspicion of anything that smacked of ‘propaganda’ constraining France’s work.

Secondly, there was the context of the broader US-France relationship.  Political developments affected the operation of public diplomacy work.  Disagreements over war loans and reparations, naval disarmament, trade and security made the projection of France harder.

Thirdly, the relations between France, the US and  Germany were absolutely central to the changing fortunes of French PD.  In the interwar period powerful currents in US opinion moved away from solely attributing the outbreak of the First World War to Germany and its allies and portrayed the French hard line on reparations as greedy.  The rise of Hitler made Americans much more receptive to France’s position.  This did not mean that publics were automatically persuaded but it effectively took a major competitor out of the game.  The Nazis may have talked about propaganda and devoted resources to it but were actually pretty clueless.

What Would We Do Differently?

France had a definite approach to its work in the US: operate through a network of Francophiles and Franco-American societies (it occurred to me that if we were talking about the USSR we’d probably call these front organizations), keep an emphasis on culture and education and avoid being seen as actively trying to exert influence.   Essentially there was a concern with the projection of France as a uniquely cultured society.  This is precisely the generalized projection that the British documents that I’ve been reading recently are so sceptical about.

Although France had a definite approach to its public diplomacy from the perspective of  the 21st century there was lots missing.

Firstly, the whole effort was hopelessly fragmented across different ministries and agencies.  For most of the period there was no organization in a position to coordinate and prioritize.  There was constant complaints about lack of money but you wonder whether the problem was less the volume of spending that its diffuse application.   From the mid 1930s there was growing interest in France in creating a better organizational structure although the impact on the ground was limited.

Secondly, although there was an approach I think that it would be fair to say that there wasn’t a strategy in the sense of goals, targets and priorities.

Thirdly, I don’t think that the French had a good sense of the dynamics of American opinion and you get the impression that at times there was a randomness to their responses to events.  Of course social research was in its infancy and there seems to have been no effort to systematically monitor opinion.  This means that the embassy could receive contradictory reports on the state of opinion on the east or west coasts or on German activities and lack any basis for evaluating their significance

Fourthly, from Young’s book there doesn’t seem to have been any effort to connect policy decisions to its  effects on US public opinion.  Of course the US wasn’t the central concern of French foreign policy during this period so even if the Quai D’Orsay had a more sophisticated grasp of policy/opinion dynamics US reaction still might not have been given any weight.

Organizational fragmentation, absence of strategy, poor understanding of the local environment, failure to connect policy and public diplomacy.  Of course 21st century public diplomacy is never like that.

Young, R.J. (2004) Marketing Marianne: French Propaganda in America, 1900-1940. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.


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