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The business of exporting Frenchness

By Daniela Deane for CNN
Moulin Rouge Can Can girls performing.
Moulin Rouge Can Can girls performing.
  • The French government sponsors a campaign to spread its culture around the world
  • France spends $1.4 billion each year promoting its culture and language abroad
  • France has stepped up its cultural diplomacy in the developing world in recent years

London, England (CNN) -- French diplomats call it "soft power." But they know it's got real, hard value.

That's cultural diplomacy "a la francaise", the government-sponsored, multi-million dollar institutionalized campaign to spread, well, Frenchness throughout the world.

In an increasingly globalized planet where the English language and Hollywood dominate, the French are taking all things French very seriously.

And they're putting their money where their "bonjours" are.

The French foreign ministry -- and so the French taxpayer -- picks up the tab for roughly two-thirds of the budget for cultural diplomacy, ministry officials say, a sub-set of international diplomacy that diplomats consider ever more important.

It is estimated France spends a whopping $1.4 billion each year promoting its culture and language abroad. The number has to be estimated because the effort comes through a jumble of programs cutting across various government ministries, officials say.

Video: Exporting French culture around the world

At the Lycee Louis-Charles Dumais in Jakarta, Indonesia, for example, more French is spoken in the schoolyard than anything else. And that's because the lycee, or high school, is just one of 460 French primary and secondary schools operating in 130 countries outside France.

France has a quarter of a million students abroad, supported by its taxpayers, following the French national curriculum, most of whom are not citizens. That's just a small part of the country's cultural diplomacy.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has always considered that culture is a complete part of diplomacy
--Gerald Candelle, Alliance Francaise

The Alliance Francaise, a network of more than a thousand associations around the world, partly supported by the French government, teach the French language, show French films, operate libraries and generally spread Frenchness wherever they operate.

"It's sort of a global part of what diplomacy has to be," Gerald Candelle of the Alliance Francaise, told CNN. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has always considered that culture is also a complete part of this diplomacy."

In the last two years, the French government has stepped up its cultural diplomacy, officials say, trying to better coordinate and target its cultural efforts, putting new value on what is clearly believed to be an important tool.

Cultural diplomacy "also helps our enterprises, our companies," Delphine Borione, of the French foreign ministry, told CNN. "It helps also to attract students to France, it promotes better capacity and interaction in other countries, which are under the French model, so it contributes to French influence."

Within France, too, keeping French culture pure is also institutionalized.

L'Academie Francaise, or the French academy, is the country's leading body on all matters pertaining to the French language. It is an erudite group tasked with being the country's last word on the usages, vocabulary and grammar of French. Although it publishes an official French dictionary, its rulings are not binding.

L'Academie, established in 1635 by the court of King Louis XIII, has tried to prevent the encroaching Anglicization of the French language, which has come under increased pressure with the widespread availability of English media and popular culture, like television and movies.

The Academy recommended, for example, that some words borrowed from English -- walkman, software and email -- be avoided in favor of words derived from French. It has met with mixed success, however, and critics have complained the 40-member body whose members are known as "les immortels" is too conservative.

Part of the effort to expand French influence abroad has been conducted through the country's overseas media outlets, where there are also moves to consolidate and rejuvenate operations to give them a more focused mission.

"It's very important that we use not only TV, but Internet and whatever else, to tell other people in the world what our ideas are, what our debates are, what are values are," Christine Ockrent from the French Audio-Visual board told CNN.

In the Paris suburbs, a French dance troupe known as the Castafiore group is rehearsing for an upcoming tour of China.

The trip is part of the $48 million (€35 million) a government agency called Culture France is spending each year to send French artists abroad.

"We're the cherry on the cake," a member of the dance troupe told CNN. "France has a lot of commercial and economic exchanges, but this cultural one is the little plus that might make a difference."

"We feel like diplomats," she told CNN. "But we are dancers, and it's the thing we can do."

CNN's Jim Bitterman contributed to this report.