Culture and neocolonialism

, by @Alfred, M. Gabuzomeu

What is culture ? The reification of art brought to its ultimate degree ? Indeed. But it is also a precious tool for France in explaining its colonialist policies, without the least trace of remorse, thanks to its broad cultural network abroad. What is at stake, and what it implies.

France possesses an impressing cultural network abroad. Its mainly consists of language centers and culturel centers (also called French Institutes), whose goal is to spread French thought and culture. More than 150 cultural centers can be found across the world, and more particularly in the countries of Francophony, most of which are former colonies. The network is dependent on the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with each center locally controlled by the French Embassies.

We could pat ourselves on the back for what seems such an act of philanthropy, this seemingly gratuitous will to bring culture to the peoples of the world. We could, but we won’t. No need to scratch too deep under this network’s humanist surface to realize that strategic, political and economical interests really drive this cultural endeavor, or to measure its paternalist and moralizing implications, strongly smelling of exacerbated nationalism and neocolonial eurocentrism. In this network, art and culture, promoted by years of philosophy as necessairly “free”, are serving a cause, that of the French nation.

All apologies, Emmanuel Kant; but bourgeois aesthetics and culture, such as promoted by these cultural centers, are all but separate from reality, or neutral to it. their existence “per se” is a lie. Using the old alibi of the civilizing mission, they serve goals and spread a mode of thinking that are purely despicable.

“Culture? Why, it is the ideal commodity, that which make us pay for all the other commodities. No wonder you would want to offer it to everybody.”

To convince yourselfof the utilitarian role devoted by the French state to cultural centers, read the special feature in a march 2005 issue of the French magazine Télérama. A good guardian of the cultural temple, the magazine laments the budget cuts that hit our cultural centers. Beyond the expected reaction from the journalists, one could read the comments of a Louis Duvernois, a UMP senator, also author of a report for the cultural affairs commission: “This cultural network served us well. When it started, in the 1940s, the point was for us to regain our spot on the international stage. Today, France does not have the means for its ambitions anymore. The problem is mostly a financial one: we need to find alternative solutions by calling in private investors to keep this “business’ going. [1]

You can’t get any clearer than this. Such as expressed by our old conservative fart, things are pretty explicit. Cultural centers are there to serve the cause of France. The goal is mainly strategic-we’re talking about France’s “rayonnement” [2] abroad-but also economical: there is a business to maintain.

The close ties that bind culture and commerce will come as no surprise. Years ago, situationist critique saw in culture the ideal commodity, that which sells all others. The French state has gotten the memo, and has been exploiting the idea. The policy of “cultural exception” [3], French version of American military imperialism, is doing well, and it exports even better. The point is to sell national production, whether it be books, movies, music or what have you. This is the use of “informational” brochures provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or French chambers of commerce abroad, and graciously distributed by cultural centers. They display the kind of every day propaganda you would expect from such publication, and also advice on how to settle in France, start a business, buy a house there, etc... The Salons de la France exhibits organized yearly in some countries are supposed to present French culture in all its variety, bu they tend to turn into bona fide real estate shows.

Culture is clearly instrumentalized. But here again, the technique employed is not new. The French approach to culture is very similar to the one followed by post-WWII American governments in answering socialist realist art. Uncle Sam meant to give a clean image of his country, show the U.S. as a model in freedom-and at the same time divert attention from the many exaction, crimes and other invasions the U.S. were simultaneously carrying out. Through the C.I.A., the White House funded the promotion of all sorts of artistic creations and cultural activities, organizing from 1950 to 1967 a series of Congresses for Cultural Freedom.

In her book Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, Frances Stonor Saunders describes the role assigned to these congresses; “One of the most important and fascinating discussions in Saunders’ book is about the fact that CIA and its allies in the Museum of Modern Art(MOMA) poured vast sums of money into promoting Abstract Expressionist(AE) painting and painters as an antidote to art with a social content [...]. They viewed AE as the true expression of the national will. To bypass right-wing criticism, the CIA turned to the private sector (namely MOMA and its co-founder, Nelson Rockefeller, who referred to AE as "free enterprise painting.")[...]. Heavily funded exhibits of AE were organized all over Europe; art critics were mobilized, and art magazines churned out articles full of
lavish praise.
" [4]

If the situation in France now is quite different from the situation of the US during to cold war, we will find puzzling similarities between the two types of propaganda. Both resort to private funding. French cultural centers multiply partnerships with private, mostly french, entreprises. From Renault to Air France and Dannon, Accor [5] or the transatlantic banks reserved for expatriates, the french cultural business is well takern care of. Free trade is in with cultural advisors.

We are not dominated by the past, but by images of the past

There is a lot at stake. This is about the image of France. Culture must also help France regain its vanishing prestige abroad. Through its so-called “culture of exception”, its exceptional culture, France seeks to show herself at her best. In Culture and Imperialism, echoing the words of Matthew Arnold, Edward Said defined high culture as “the best that has been thought and said in the world”. It is clearly up to cultural centers to present to the world the best France has to offer. With the instrumentalization of culture, the idea of a nation, a civilization, is promoted with the due amount of arrogance, if not straight-up aggression. A culture that presents itself as national calls inevitably for a hierarchy in which it occupies the first rungs. After defining culture, Said states: “In time, culture comes to be associated, often aggressively, with the nation or the state; this differentiates ’us’ from ‘them’, almost always with some degree of xenophobia.” If, according to Clausewitz, "war is the continuation of politics by other means", it seems that culture can serve the same purpose.

Putting forward one given national culture is not only a diminishing initiative, ignoring the hybrid and heterogeneous qualities of all cultures; it also reveals a profoundly imperialistic drive. Said adds that “[t]here is in all nationally defined cultures [...] an aspiration to sovereignty, to sway and to dominance.

Without a doubt, cultural centers are a central part in the global imperialist politics of France, a tool for France’s schemes to keep control over its former colonies, and more precisely those in Africa. Culture turns out to be an efficient means of “radiating” influence over a country. It insidiously contributes to impose a way of doing, a way of seeing, a European, “western” point of view. On this note, the eager promotion of official magazines straight from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-such as Label France-and, in general, of mainstream media from traditional press to TV5, the unofficial TV channel for the Ministry-has played an important role. In its partnership with privately-owned multinational companies, the French cultural network is direrctly linked to Francafrica , the scandal revealed by the recently deceaseds Francois-Xavier Verschaves.

The network has branches in most of the countries composing Francophonia, most of which are former French colonies. A coincidence? The most important cultural networks all stem from former European colonial powerhouses, France, Great Britain with its British Councils, and Germany with the Goethe Institutes.

France particularly has a tradition of putting culture at the core of its imperial politics. All colonial powers weren’t the same, and the French Empire was driven by prestige, says Said. Educate, bring culture and civilization have been France’s alibis for colonization since the 3d Republic. In La République coloniale, Nicolas Bancel, Pascal Blanchard and Françoise Vergès underline the role played by culture in the building of the French empire: “Republicans [...] adopted the idea defended by Colbert, about the importance of a common culture to unify the empire [...]. Let us say it once again, republican colonization gives culture a central role. [6]

Such is the leitmotiv of the civilizing mission, and cultural centers perpetuate it with all the arrogance and paternalism you would expect from them. This tradition is in part inherited from the ever lauded period of Enlightenment, defined as the epitome of French humanism. We know the score, from Voltaire’s racialist comments [7] to Tocqueville, Hugo or Camus, all great defenders of French Algeria [8], and Caillois, who, as Aimé Césaire noted in Discourse on Colonialism,his indictment of bourgeois humanism, had made it a priority to demonstrate the superiority of European and western civilization above all others.
Imperialism and colonialism have been at the heart of French culture for a while.
And they still are.

If you look at the way cultural centers function, you find surviving colonial structures. There are two categories of employees in the French cultural network: on the one side, those recruited among the local population, and on the other side French expatriates, sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They not only receive overblown wages, but they also benefit from all sorts of privileges inherited from the colonial system (tax breaks, staff residence, guaranteed retirement in France, varied indemnities...). As Bancel, Blanchard and Vergès further remark in their book, “it would be wrong to believe that colonial life disappeared with decolonization [...]. What about the expatriates in Africa, who benefit from privileges they would be denied in continental France? [9]

They very fact that the French cultural network is dependent on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rather than the Ministry of Culture, tends to indicate that the stakes are mostly political. In Africa, some have understood the direct link between politics and culture. During demonstration against the intervention of former colonial powers in their countries’ politics, they attacked cultural centers. In 2003, the French cultural center of Abidjan was torched, and more recently, in 2005, the Goethe Institute in Lomé, Togo, met the same fate.

Hard to blame them, if you followed what happened in both countries, and how the French cultural network works on the orders of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And if need be, just look at our new Foreign Affairs Minister. Since the European referendum debacle, Douste-Blazy is a the helm of the Ministry on Quai d’Orsay. We remember that in march 2003, as a representative in the French parliament, he had posted a motion aiming at “recognizing the positive work undertaken by all the Frenchmen who lived in Algeria when France was present there. [10] Let us now praise French colonialism in Algeria. At least, our Minister’s preferences are clear. And they fit in well with the general atmosphere of neocolonialism that has taken France lately, in this “obvious movement for the rehabilitation of colonialism" decried by Claude Liauzu [11]. Among the most explicit examples of the neocolonialist wave, articles 4 and 13 of the Law of February 23d 2005, ratified by the assembly and the Senate [12], recommends that teachers recognize “the positive role of French presence abroad, and especially in North Africa”, and also reestablishes former members of OAS in their retirement rights.

In the cultural field, the celebration in 2004 of the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale is quite characteristic of the use of culture as an alibi to justify nostalgia for empires and colonies. What started as a political text, written by two colonial powers as an agreement on the take-over of the African continent, was turned into a dumbed down, clean-cut celebration covering political and military collaboration, but also agreements in sports, science, medicine, and culture. As we wrote on this website in 2003: To talk about culture in relation to Entente Cordiale is a definite first, if not a straight historical lie. In the frontline of festivities, not surprisingly, you could find the French cultural center in Great Britain, and the British Council in Paris.

Through its cultural network, the ministry broadcasts its most arrogant and scornful positions, and supports the most shameful imperialist policies. If the nostalgia of Douste-Blazy wasn’t enough, a quick look at the authority ruling over the cultural network should do: the General Direction of International Cooperation and Development (Direction Générale de la Coopération Internationale et du Développement (DGCID)) was until recently headed by Bruno Delaye, former advisor to the President and head of the African cell of the French government from July 1992 to January 1995. He just happens to be one of the principal protagonists of the French involvement in the Rwandan genocide. It never stopped him from uttering most despicably arrogant statements [13], or from being named ambassador to Mexico, and then head of the DGCID. The head of our cultural network has blood on his hands. We are at the heart of Francafrica, where culture and neocolonialist politics are tightly intertwined.

With the precious tool this cultural network turned out to be, France proves right this comment made by William Blake in his notes on ReynoldsDiscourses: “The Foundation of Empire is Art & Science Remove them or Degrade them & the Empire is No More—Empire follows Art & Not Vice Versa as Englishmen suppose.

This way of functioning is not exceptional. It is inscribed in a value system promoted by society as a whole, which can be seen on different levels. Anecdotally, we will notice that the cultural references spread in our society tend to show as acceptable such attitudes and policies as shown earlier. The three authors whose works were to be studied at this year’s philosophy exam in the French baccalaureat (high school diploma), are indeed strangely characteristic of the values defended by French society. From John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian liberalism to bourgeois art’s champion Emmanuel Kant’s racialism and Nicolas Malebranche’s proselytist catholic moralism, it’s all there, or almost.
Nothing to worry about.

French values are safe.

The state will make sure of that.


[1Télérama. no. 2880, march 23d 2005. Online French version here .

[2A term regularly used in relation to France’s culture, it literally means radiance. This won’t fail to evoke other Empires, such as Britain’s, on which the sun was said never to set, or Japan’s. for that matter.

[3For a quite interesting take on the French policy of “exception culturelle”, read here, an excerpt from a Newsweek article by Tony Judt

[4Read here a review of the book.

[5Accor is well-known for dubious workplace ethics, quite in keeping with the general neocolonialist atmosphere; see here for more details in English.

[6Personal translation.

[7For example, the classic: "The NEGRO race is a species of men as different from ours as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhounds ... if their understanding is not of a different nature from ours, it is at least greatly inferior. They are not capable of any great application or association of ideas, and seem formed neither of the advantages nor abuses or our philosophy." From Voltaire’s essay The Negro, quoted here.

[8See Tocqueville’s First Report on Algeria, and this great comment by Hugo to general Bugeaud, head of the French invasion of Algeria in 1830: "Our new conquest is a great and happy event. It is civilization marching against barbarism [...]. Our mission is being accomplished, I can only sing hosannahs" (personal translation). The chapter devoted to Camus in Said’s Culture and Imperialism is quite unequivocal too.

[9Personal translation, from La Republique Coloniale.

[10Personal translation, from the original text here.

[11Personal translation. From this interview, originally published in Liberation.

[12Personal translation. See the whole text in French here .

[13He once wisely explained to genocide historian Alyson Desforges that "Among Africans, massacre is a common practice that cannot be easily eliminated" (Personal translation from this page in French).