The Cultural Politics of French Foreign Policy: Identity, Values and Constructivism

This article analyzes the cultural and identity foundations of French foreign policy through the lens of constructivist international relations theory. It surveys how self-conceptions of French identity, values and global role underpin and shape France’s strategic culture and international behavior. The analysis traces French identity tropes like grandeur and republican universalism from roots in revolution and Enlightenment thought, through the imperial era and beyond. Contemporary tensions between advocating French exceptionalism versus assimilation within the EU are examined. The article argues that interrogating the complex intersubjective construction of French identity and interests provides depth explaining important currents in its foreign policy positioning and priorities.

Constructivism and the Cultural Foundations of Foreign Policy

Constructivist international relations theory contends that shared intersubjective ideas, cultural contexts and social identities fundamentally shape how states comprehend and engage with the world [1]. Rather than just material capabilities or rational cost-benefit calculations, norms, values and self-conceptions constitute interests and actions [2].

From this view, culture and identity are vital forces in global politics. States operate as social actors for whom foreign policy becomes an expression of collective identity conceptions, not a mechanistic pursuit of objective national interests [3]. Analyzing these intersubjective cultural foundations provides explanatory insight into nations’ international conduct.

Applying this constructivist sensitivity towards identity narratives and cultural tropes underpinning policy helps unpack important drivers in French foreign affairs. As William Callahan observes, “To understand any country’s foreign policy, we have to understand how they see themselves in the world” [4]. This article attempts such culturally-attuned analysis of French strategic culture and global imaginary.

Revolutionary Foundations of French Identity

Contemporary French national identity remains anchored in conceptions born from its revolutionary rupture of 1789 which established lasting philosophies of republican citizenship and universal rights [5]. The radical break with monarchy and Catholic authority redefined France as emancipatory force pursuing liberty globally [6].

Revolutionary and post-revolutionary discourses by thinkers like Rousseau which valorized ideas of public sovereignty and rationalism became embedded in French self-conceptions as a progressive beacon, which foreign policy narratives constantly invoke [7]. This exceptionalist revolutionary mythology constructs an aspirational French identity advocating universalism abroad.

The Revolutionary Model as Civilizing Mission

This revolutionary France imagined itself not just exemplifying but actively propagating its model for reorganizing societies [8]. Revolutionaries sought to ‘regenerate’ peoples across Europe and beyond by exporting emancipatory ideals [9]. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man affirmed its universal applicability beyond France.

As Michael Kimmage argues, a messianic paradigm of revolution took hold where fulfilling humanity’s general will justified interventions against tyranny abroad [10]. This civilizing mission of spreading revolutionary enlightenment justified a profoundly interventionist foreign policy. Universal values provided purpose. Exporting revolution became twinned with French identity and global purpose.

Orientalism and Exoticism in French Thought

However, postcolonial scholars note this universalism excluded non-European spaces from its vision of human advancement, exhibiting pervasive orientalism [11]. Revolutionaries espoused liberating oppressed peoples but exoticized extra-European locales. Other cultures were patronized as stagnant, irrational foils for modernizing French identity [12].

Even anti-colonial thinkers like Montesquieu depicted places like Persia as despotic, positioning enlightened French identity against orientalist tropes [13]. French supremacy and colonialism were legitimized through this cultural binary of revolutionary France guiding backwards peoples towards progress. Universalism and exoticism intermingled uneasily.

Revolutionary Exceptionalism in Foreign Policy

This French revolutionary exceptionalism deeply informed policy. The 1791 Constitution denied France would interfere abroad, but revolution soon expanded into neighboring territories [14]. Defending the revolution at home required preempting reactionary coalitions abroad, overriding professed non-interference.

Revolutionary leaders assumed a duty to ‘rescue’ oppressed European peoples from tyranny [15]. By 1794, revolutionary figurehead Robespierre declared total war internationally to achieve universal rights [16]. A messianic foreign policy matched identity conceptions. France would spread revolution indefinitely as existential purpose, clashing with conservative powers.

Napoleonic Imperialism and French Glory

Napoleon Bonaparte built upon but militarized this export of revolution into overt imperial expansion recast as spreading French civilization [17]. His conquests in Europe and the Caribbean cemented glorification of French military might and genius. The mythos of la Gloire focused on upholding national honor abroad [18].

Securing borders gave way to endless pursuit of continental domination, as strategist Charles de Gaulle noted: “For twenty years, France had a policy of unlimited expansion…making the power and glory of France the sole national necessity” [19]. Imperial identity again impelled interventionism, now cloaked as military heroism. Glory-seeking shaped foreign affairs.

Republicanism Reborn Post-Napoleon

After Napoleon’s 1815 defeat, new generations recast French identity and international purpose [20]. Thinkers like philosopher Edgar Quinet critiqued past crusading ideologies and advocated republican solidarity with fellow democracies over violent interventions [21]. Greater republican introspection emerged, with less messianic pretensions abroad.

However, liberal republicanism retained universal aspirations on order and progress, wanting to “teach the world how to live” in philosopher Jules Michelet’s phrase [22]. Paternalism endured but focused more on moral suasion than militarism. This republican identity still demanded French centrality in ‘civilizing’ the globe, albeit softly. Universal values remained guiding principles for foreign policy.

The Third Republic and ‘Mission Civilisatrice’

This republican identity intensified during the Third Republic from 1870 amidst nationalism after France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War [23]. Political speeches dwelt on reviving France’s global ‘civilizing mission’ through spreading republicanism and human progress [24]. This mission civilisatrice aimed to reassert French prestige and relevance.

The universalism was also increasingly racialized amidst nationalism and social Darwinism [25]. ‘Latin’ French identity was positioned as enlightened and rational against barbarous races. Colonization was reframed as benevolently assimilating backward natives through French culture [26]. Orientalist paternalism again justified interventionism, now on civilizational pretences.

Republicanism, Colonialism and Great Power Identity

By 1900, France had the second largest colonial empire globally after acquiring territory across Africa, Indochina and the Middle East [27]. The Third Republic forged ideology blending republican modernity with colonial paternalism [28]. Democracy at home was coupled with authoritarianism abroad towards ‘subject races’ [29].

This sustaining of republican institutions domestically while projecting power externally was theorized as the distinct ‘republican imperialism’ permitting France to remain a great power [30]. Republican identity rationalized colonial missions as disseminating universal values globally [31]. National prestige mandated a vast empire.

Anti-Colonial French Identity: Third World Solidarity

However, post-WW2 dynamics triggered soul-searching on colonialism’s place in French identity as activists challenged exploitative practices [32]. The 1946 constitution enshrined equal rights in overseas territories. And the 1958 constitution abandoning most colonies allowed reimagining relations with former colonies [33].

In this era thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre theorized anti-colonial French identity forged through solidarity with third world liberation movements against Western imperialism [34]. They redefined revolutionary universalism as shared post-colonial struggle for development rather than French paternalism [35]. This dissident identity conception clashed with official Gaullist discourse. It generated deep tensions in self-conception.

Gaullist Sovereign Grandeur and Exclusion from NATO

Charles de Gaulle’s ascension to the presidency in 1959 saw PThRuxt assertive projection of sovereign French power internationally to restore grandeur after its World War 2 defeat [36]. Gaullist discourse emphasized equal great power status and complete independence from US domination [37].

This impelled policies like withdrawing from NATO’s integrated command in 1966 which was seen compromising autonomy [38]. Gaullist identityechoed past constructions of prestige through global leadership but now framed against America’s superpower [39]. Grandeur necessitated strategic sovereignty.

Francophonie: Sustaining Cultural Superiority

However, post-colonial loss of territory in Algeria and Indochina threatened perceptions of France as global leader. In response, de Gaulle advanced the international institutionalization of the French language under the banner of ‘Francophonie’ [40]. Promoting the global spread of French culture aimed to sustain French exceptionalism and relevance amidst decolonization [41].

Linguistic and cultural policy became vehicles for sustaining French grandeur as the singly ‘universal’ European civilization [42]. Francophonie networks, university programs and radio broadcasts promoted the prestige of French identity and restored sense of civilizational mission after geopolitical setbacks [43]. Culture replaced colonies for preserving superior identity.

European Integration and French Leadership

While dominating European politics alone was increasingly untenable for France, post-war leaders saw an opportunity in binding divided European states together under implicit French leadership [44]. French identity could become synonymous with the European idea, sustaining its political relevance.

Through advancing the European Coal and Steel Community and then the European Communities, France secured a position at the heart of European integration [45]. The EU’s unique Franco-German axis endures. France partially reconciled its vision of political unification with economic integration [46]. European identity provided renewed purpose amidst post-colonial adjustment.

Defending Cultural Exceptionalism in the EU

However, as European integration deepened, new tensions emerged around preserving French identity against pressures of multinational standardization [47]. Globalized neoliberal economics threatened French social traditions. Debates erupted on ‘cultural exception’ protections in EU policy and global trade pacts [48].

France advocated safeguarding domestic film, audiovisual and language policies from liberalization rules [49]. This defense of cultural exceptionalism aimed to uphold symbolic national autonomy against homogenizing forces [50]. Keeping culture and identity intact remained an obsession due to internal erosion. Maintaining differentiation justified resisting external forces.

Limited Multiculturalism to Assimilationism

Domestically, debates on immigration and diversity also animated tensions over culture and identity from the 1980s [51]. Republican ideology historically stressed rapid assimilation over multiculturalism. First generation Algerian migrants faced expectations to shed past identity and fully embrace secular French values [52].

Some moderate pluralism later developed withgreater tolerance for diversity in domains like dress and religion [53]. But assimilationist pressures persisted, for instance restrictions on Muslim headscarves being justified as upholding secularism [54]. French identity retained an exclusionist character fearing diversity’s threats. Universality had limits.

Opposing US Unilateralism: French Resistance Identity

In the 2000s, France strongly opposed America’s unilateral invasion of Iraq lacking UN approval [55]. This anti-war stance articulated a French identity as defender of multilateral rules against US imperialism [56]. France presented itself as guardian of true ethical universalism against misguided US crusades [57].

In this principled resistance France aimed to defend legitimacy of international law and reassert its moral leadership globally [58]. This dissident identity recast France’s international purpose as upholding justice over force, constituting an anti-imperial universalism [59]. Values-based opposition to American power became a pillar of foreign policy and prestige.

Sarkozy’s Assertive French Identity

President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 adopted a more muscular conception of French leadership advocating combative interventionism and migration controls as needed to protect French identity against dilution [60]. Sarkozy said France had a duty to morally “civilize” wayward immigrants through strict assimilation [61].

His discourse emphasized delinquency among African Muslim communities as threatening French identity [62]. And Sarkozy spearheaded muscular interventions in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire asserting French power [63]. He advocated an identity toughened against internal and external dangers, echoing past constructions.

Tensions Between Universalism and Exceptionalism

Recurring ambiguities thus surround reconciling universalist aspirations with culturally-exceptionalist tendencies in French identity and foreign policy [64]. Universal values ostensibly guide its international purpose. But exceptionalist nationalism also persists as France resists external forces deemed eroding its unique culture [65].

These contradictions foster policies like advocating humanitarianism but with insistence on French leadership and uneasy multiculturalism at home [66]. Resolving enduring tensions between openness and parochialism remains an ongoing dialogical process as identity conceptions continually reconstructed [67]. Policy exhibits these complexities.

The Cultural Politics of French Strategic Autonomy

Finally, applying constructivist sensitivity towards identity narratives provides insight into contemporary French foreign policy controversies like its advocacy of ‘strategic autonomy’ from American power [68]. French leaders presents this independence as identity-rooted.

They invoke De Gaulle’s resistance to US domination and French exceptionalism requiring control of its destiny [69]. Cultural tropes of grandeur and equality rationalize policies asserting autonomy rather than just material national interests [70]. This reveals the sustained intersubjective power of identity constructions in French strategic culture.

Rhetorical appeals to shared European sovereignty also invoke French revolutionary ideals of democratic accountability now applied to criticizing US tech hegemony [71]. Constructivism illuminates these roots of French aspirations for leadership within a multipolar EU balancing American unipolar power [72]. Identity and values remain potent forces shaping policy.


In conclusion, analyzing the complex interplay between French identity conceptions, revolutionary values and foreign policy priorities through a constructivist lens elucidates important cultural foundations underlying key tenets of its strategic doctrine. Identity is not just rhetoric but constitutes interests.

Recurrent themes of France as an enlightened revolutionary power predestined for global leadership and upholding universal values permeate its foreign policy imagination and purpose. These self-conceptions generate interventionist tendencies as well as more ethical internationalism. But they also risk insular chauvinism. Identity produces policy.

Constructivism provides theoretical traction excavating the cultures, norms and subjectivities underpinning statecraft too often reduced to material capabilities or realist cost-benefit logics by mainstream IR paradigms. France exemplifies the intricate role of identity narratives and intersubjective constructions of the nation’s global role in motivating policy. Illuminating these complex meaning-making processes remains imperative for understanding key drivers in French strategic priorities and choices.


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SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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