As empires fall, brands rise.
Continue Reading Below
No longer buoyed by Napoleonic empire-making and the power the French language once commanded, the French have honed new ways to exert cultural influence in a rapidly-changing, globalized world: brand diplomacy.
The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi over the weekend is the latest example of how traditional French cultural diplomacy is being supplanted by brand politics: Abu Dhabi bought the rights to use the Paris museum's famous name at a price tag of over $500 million over three decades.
This example of "soft power" goes beyond museum names such as the future Shanghai Pompidou Center — and can be seen in the exporting of Sorbonne's academic reputation, the proliferation of Christian Dior boutiques in Asia, the increasingly popular fizz of Moet & Chandon champagne, the cuisine of master chef Alain Ducasse and Louis Vuitton's status handbags.
"It used to be by the military, like for Napoleon. Today, there are other means of influence abroad," Laurent Stefanini, France's ambassador to UNESCO, the UN's cultural body, told The Associated Press.
"The fact is that the big known institutions are exporting themselves — exporting their products, exporting their collections, exporting their savoir-faire," he added, saying that the French Foreign Ministry has ramped up efforts to promote France via its luxury and gastronomy in a concerted strategy in recent years.
While there was some grumbling about the commercialization of French cultural heritage when the Louvre Abu Dhabi project was launched, today it's hard to find anyone critical of France's effort to capitalize on the unique reputation of its museums and luxury traditions to draw people into French culture.
"Private institutions ... are playing a more important role as of the last few years," Jack Lang, an influential former French culture minister who now heads the Arab World Institute in Paris, said in an interview.
Kering and LVMH — the huge parent companies for brands such as Saint Laurent, Dior and Vuitton as well as many Champagnes and spirits — have a near stranglehold on the luxury markets in every global region and jointly had sales of $58 billion in 2016.
"Foreign citizens might recognize France now by its brands and names... that's a good thing. It's an opening. This path will lead them to writers; to the technology that's advancing in many domains," added Lang.
Lang said that over the last decade the French state has cut funding to the traditional means of promoting French language and culture abroad, such as the Lycee Francais schools, amid the dominance of the English language.
The chefs, designers and curators are very much aware that they are modern day cultural ambassadors.
"The Louvre Abu Dhabi is... recognition of French expertise and the renown of the Louvre museum. So, yes, we are both very proud that the Louvre name bears these values (as) a new way for France to speak to the world," Louvre President Jean-Luc Martinez told The AP.
Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier said that the role of luxury clothes has changed and they increasingly represent the countries from which they're made.
"Clothes are ... a kind of ambassador that speaks visually, and effectively represents the French savoir-faire," Gaultier said.
Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse said: "You have to accept it. Eating well is part of the image of France."
A symphony of popping Champagne corks echoed across the Versailles Palace in the presence of dozens of country ambassadors in 2015, as the French Foreign Ministry used chef Ducasse and his name to launch an annual global French food event called "Good France."
From Beijing to Rio de Janeiro and in France itself, over a thousand chefs across five continents minced their steak tartares, salted their foie gras and flamed their creme brulees simultaneously.
Despite the merriment, the moment reflected a serious shift in strategy under former Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in how France would now promote itself abroad through its brands in the gastronomic, cultural and luxury industries.
The French strategy has impressed some across the English channel that think the U.K. must do the same in order for British culture to continue to wield global power.
The Director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Tristram Hunt, recently wrote in British media that the Louvre Abu Dhabi opening marked a shift in the European balance of cultural influence, and that post-Brexit Britain needs to be thinking along the same lines or risk losing influence.
"I'm sure that big British institutions like the British Museum, like the Victoria and Albert and others, will also find this path and catch us up," Stefanini said.
More broadly, Stefanini said that it takes more than a famous name to be successful in this strategy of brand diplomacy.
He pointed out that the French gastronomic meal was declared a part of World Heritage for UNESCO in 2010.
"Soft power has influence... But we are successful because the products are good," he said.
Visitors to the French capital recognize this, too.
"Paris itself is a brand and it's marketed as a brand," said Marylee Adler, 28, from Ohio, as she walked outside the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs-Elysees avenue. "No other city in the world has that same immediate associations of luxury and gastronomy and culture... They're playing to their strengths."
Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamson_K