From Soft Power to Smart Power: French Cultural and Scientific Diplomacy

Philippe Lane is Professor Emeritus at the University of Rouen and a specialist of French scientific and cultural diplomacy. He has published on this topic in French, English, and Arabic. He has held several French diplomatic posts in Australia, the UK, and especially Jordan.

As a power, France has influence; it is one of the few countries significant in world affairs. This derives from membership of the Security Council; furthermore, the country has economic and military strength, a diplomatic network, avowed universal principles, a willingness to argue beyond the country’s own interests, and the language.

Some would argue that France is now in decline, that its influence is weakening abroad. The reality is more complex. France’s international influence is not in accord with its economic or demographic weight. Of course, new countries emerge on the international scene, themselves motivated by a justified desire of international recognition that is crucial in the competition that occurs in a divided world. Fully engaged in this competition, France enjoys a unique position, which the international community has always recognized.

This smart power, a new evolution of the soft power concept, is recognized as a power attribute of growing importance; and the foreign cultural and scientific policies of France are at the heart of its strategies to maintain influence around the world.

All countries, both established and emerging powers, appreciate the strategic nature of culture, science and education for their development. From an economic perspective, these elements have their attraction: politically, they are means to exert influence.

In a competitive world, France is determined to promote its strengths. There is a readiness to build on French history, on research which is among the most innovative in the world, on the university system, and on French artists. There is a network of influence: cultural, educational, scientific and academic cooperation (Campus France) unsurpassed in the world: the legacy of a long tradition of cultural and scientific outreach beyond the borders of France.

The strategy is one of active influence through cooperation and cultural initiatives by embassies and by branches of the Institut Français and the Alliances Françaises. With the founding of the Institut Français (2011), France has gained a new impetus to its foreign cultural policy. This new state organization was given a broader scope: to the dissemination and promotion of artistic exchanges were added the distribution of books, support for media resource centers and the French Film industry, and the promotion of French thought and scientific knowledge, including aid for French teaching and training.

First through an initiative that was shared with French schools abroad and the 900 Alliances Françaises, there is the promotion and diffusion of French, the second foreign language taught throughout the world after English – the only two languages used on every continent. France, as home to this language, desires a link between all countries sharing French. The language counts millions of learners, one million of them in the Institutes and Alliances françaises. The promotion of the French language will go together with the other activities, the main thread being the expansion of a network of teachers and students.

Scientific and cultural cooperation is closely linked to today’s global issues. The main objective is to improve the image of France and to develop the communication policies of the various operators and organizations in charge of foreign policy. The great projects of cultural and scientific cooperation will have a real impact only if they are highlighted and evaluated in terms of the influence they may have on the countries or regions where they are implemented. The evaluation and impact of cultural and scientific policies are certainly vital at times of declining levels of public funding and the quest for new partnerships.

The scope of cultural and scientific activity is extremely broad and implies a concerted effort on the part of the various players: cooperation and cultural activity services, services for science and technology, research centers and Instituts français, Alliances françaises and French education institutions. The growing specialization of the different functions incites France to return to a more collective way of working so that the country can offer its foreign partners a more concerted and coherent program.