It’s not surprising that France excels at soft power. After all, it has history on its side, having had centuries to refine assets from art to philosophy and education. What’s more, a combination of a long colonial legacy (as well as enduring links with Francophone nations) and ongoing investment in institutions such as Institut Français, Alliance Française and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie has meant that the nation’s language and culture has remained a touchstone around the world.
It helps, of course, that the French aren’t exactly shy when it comes to pushing their influence. It’s also a plus that soft power often makes good business sense, like when a historic museum leases its name to the UAE.
Yet it’s not just the past giving the nation a good name abroad: some truly appealing soft-power assets have arisen within the past century with no help from the state at all. Fashion, food, cinema, creative design: Gallic contemporary culture, riding high off the strength of the national brand, often sets the bar at a height that everyone else tries to reach.
Here we scan the globe to track where Brand France is making its mark.
1. Acting talent. From the days of Georges Méliès to the New Wave movement, French cinema has long been influential. Today France’s acting talent, including Juliette Binoche, Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard, dominates Hollywood too.
2. Bicycles. Look has been making bicycles for decades (the brand’s bikes were ridden by Canada’s national team). The company also made the first-ever carbon-fibre road bike in the 1980s.
3. Lycée schools. Overseen by the Agency for French Education Abroad, dozens of schools teach the French national curriculum, from New York to Nairobi.
4. Baron & Baron. The New York creative agency started by Frenchman Fabien Baron has, since 1990, masterminded some of fashion’s most famous ad campaigns.
5. Champagne. Prosecco and cava have tried but no fizz can truly compete with France’s finest.
6. Médecins Sans Frontières. This medical NGO was founded in Paris in 1971 following the Biafran war. Today it operates in more than 70 nations around the world.
7. Tourism. France is the most visited nation in the world, welcoming 89 million tourists in 2017. As of 2014, Germans made up the largest tourist numbers.
8. Michelin Guides. French cuisine is a soft-power asset unto itself but the Michelin Red Guide and its prized stars wield another level of influence on the global dining scene. While stars are awarded all over the world, outside France, Japan and Italy have the most.
9. Embassies. With more than 160 embassies around the world, and many of them based in especially gorgeous buildings such as the Michelangelo-designed Palazzo Farnese in Rome, France is both well represented and well appointed abroad.
10. Thales. The multinational is known for more than just its aerospace and defence systems. In Denmark, for example, the company was responsible for modernising the Nordic nation’s rail network.
11. The accent. The famed French inflection somehow epitomises intelligence, insouciance, sexiness and discernment all at once. Science can’t explain it.
12. Louvre. The celebrated art museum went east – or its brand did – when, in 2017, the Jean Nouvel-designed Musée du Louvre opened in Abu Dhabi.
13. Renault. The venerable car-maker was established back in 1899. Today its automobiles sell globally but are especially popular in Russia, Renault’s biggest market outside France.
14. Electronic music. Whether you’re in Ibiza, Miami or Bangkok, you can count on hearing French electronic music, not least Kitsuné’s roster of hitmakers.
15. Bonne Maman. The Bonne Maman (which means “grandmother”) brand and its instantly recognisable jars of jam have been gracing breakfast tables around the world for decades.
16. APC. While France has no shortage of world-famous designers and fashion houses, it was APC that pioneered the style of “normal dressing” as a fashion statement long before anyone else was doing it. Cool kids around the world are now wearing the label, particularly in Japan, which is the brand’s biggest market.
17. Breton stripes. Nautical chic via Brittany went global in the early 20th century when Coco Chanel released a version that stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood began sporting.