Recovering the Nation, Part 1: The French Theory of Influence

August 26, 2014

In last post I suggested that the importance the France has attached to questions of cultural diplomacy is a function of the way that the nation is discussed but this goes further: the French theory of influence sees France within a world of nations. In this series of posts I’m going to outline my take on the French theory of influence as a matter of inter-national relations before asking the question whether Anglo-Saxon policy and academic thinking has a blind spot towards questions of nationality and nationness what the implication of this are and where it comes from.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the failure of US and UK research to really engage with French (or German) concepts of statecraft is a major gap in our knowledge of public diplomacy. This is important not just because France is an important international actor in its own right but also because it shows up some of the gaps and assumptions within Anglo-Saxon (but also other liberal) modes of thinking about influence particularly the question of the nation.

Michel Foucher’s edited Atlas de l’Influence Française au XXIeme Siècle (Paris: Institut Française, 2013) provides a good place to start. which between the publisher and the institutional affiliations of many of the contributors has to be seen as a relatively authoritative statement. Although Foucher provides an up to date discussion the project that he discusses is pretty much the same one that was sketched out at the end of the 19th century.

The starting point: France before all is a culturally, linguistically and historically defined community that exists in a world of other similar communities, states are therefore merely the political expression of these communities (this is pure Herder). Within this world of diversity it is important to resist the forces of homogenization represented by capitalism/globalization/English/the United States. Indeed it is instructive that part 1 of the Foucher collection the fundamentals of influence opens with a chapter entitled ‘the other language’; the French language is important in its own right but it is also important as the alternative to English.   Hence France is not only engaged in a competition for influence among other countries but is also part of an effort to resist homogenization. Of course such an effort not only preserves French influence but also builds it through the country’s leadership role in this effort.

Running through this approach is a fundamental assumption of nationality that links everything together, the Atlas covers the legal system (and its characteristic modes of thinking), the internationalization of French companies, food, luxury goods, design, education, expertise, development aid, public health, expertise, cultural industries, ideas, the formal instruments: MFA, Institut, Alliance, broadcasting form only a small part of the discussion. It’s all linked together: If you buy a Hermès scarf you are buying into as aspect of France’s influence but at the same time French influence does not float in some deterritorialized realm of globalization but must be considered part of geopolitics because a realm of nations is a geopolitical one.

But isn’t this just soft power? In his introduction Foucher explicitly differentiates French influence from soft power. Soft power is not a scientific concept of universal applicability but a distinctly American project with an emphasis on power. Soft power is always discussed in relation to hard power and aims at getting the other to accept your objectives and models. France is not in a position to make such an imposition thus ‘influence’ needs to operate through interaction and reciprocity. I’m not sure that I quite buy the claims of ‘influence’ put in these terms is that different but I think that the emphasis that soft power should be seen as a US project is correct. What noticeable about French influence is the way that it is placed in the context of a global order composed of ‘countries’ whereas American (and British discussions) often take on a strongly universalist tone without reference to questions of national difference. France is the home of ‘the rights of man’ and so also has to balance claims of national difference with universal values but in my next post I’ll pick up on some implications.


  1. Robin, There is a v good discussion of France in “presence francaise dans le monde, l’action culturelle et scientifque” by Philippe Lane (ex French education attaché in London). You are right about soft power/US/Nye. Totally distorts UK picture. Interesting discussion with James Pamment over how 1990s up to 2001 UK debate was not driven by Nye-isms but more by Colley+brand. PD/Soft power only came in with Straw and his pro-US fixation.

  2. Hi Steve – the Lane book actually got translated as French Scientific and Cultural Diplomacy. The Foucher book offers a broader perspective than Lane, it’s less focused on the institutions and programmes than Lane.

    I’d love to be able to kill off soft power but I’m not holding my breath, but maybe if we can see some different ways of thinking that will help.

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