On world stage, France's role is audience favorite

Karen Hughes should be French - it would make her job easier.

As the US undersecretary of State for public diplomacy returns home from her first foreign trip burnishing America's image in the world, she might feel a touch of envy at the glowing international reputation that France enjoys, highlighted in a recent study by the Project on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).

In the survey of people in 23 countries across the globe, a majority or plurality in 20 described France as exerting a positive influence on world affairs. The US, by comparison, is seen as having a negative impact by majorities in 15 countries.

"France is seen as a countervoice to the US," says Steven Kull, director of PIPA. "It becomes a rallying point for all those who don't want to follow America's lead."

Certainly, Paris appeals in part precisely because it is not Washington. But it goes beyond that. From the streets of Shanghai to Berlin, Monitor interviews found that the French flair for the finer things in life has a special cachet.

French movies are admired worldwide for their subtlety and depth; French fashion houses dress the rich and powerful worldwide; and the lure of French art and cuisine fascinated foreigners long before Paris stood up to Washington politically.

"We [Germans] look on with wonder at France's cultural influence in the world," says Henrik Utterwede, deputy director of the German-French Institute in Ludwigsburg. "And we are a bit jealous of it, as well."

On top of that, says former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, France is so admired because "many people think France is a country that tries to correct the imbalances of today's world, such as the excessive power of the United States."

Or, put another way, "The French willingness to stand up and be a rooster, to take a stand and get up someone's nose, is a big strength," says Doug Miller, head of GlobeScan, the international polling firm that carried out the survey with the University of Maryland's PIPA.

France's global popularity - except in America, the only country where a majority of respondents called French influence negative - "is really a question of image," cautions Alain Frachon, editor of "Le Monde 2," a weekly magazine. "France does not weigh very heavily in international affairs," he argues, "and it does not set a very great example" as a major arms exporter, a not especially generous donor to developing nations, and a defender of outmoded economic policies.

Most people, however, "do not follow foreign policy very closely, and these things come down to a few images and symbols," points out Mr. Vedrine.

The most symbolic recent moment came in the buildup to the Iraq war, which France vehemently and vocally opposed. "The very, very strong position that France took on the side of global public opinion explains the figures" in the poll, says Mr. Miller.

"France was speaking for the world; [French president Jacques] Chirac stood up and that's what leadership is," Miller adds.

The symbolism had practical effects, suggests Mr. Utterwede. For years, Germany resisted French efforts to enlist it as a counterweight to Washington. But some of France's fierce individuality has rubbed off on Berlin, says Utterwede. "There is this idea of friendship [with Washington], yes; obedience, no. There is a sense of emancipation in German foreign policy that can almost be considered 'Francophonization.' "

France's stand had effects on the other side of the Atlantic, too, where Americans expressed their anger or their disappointment by ordering "Freedom Fries." It became cool to dislike the French (52 percent of Americans believe French international influence is negative), especially because many felt the French owed America gratitude for liberating them from the Nazis and then defending them against the Soviets.

"France has become popular merely by defining itself in opposition to the United States under the Bush administration," critiques Jacquelyn K. Davis, executive vice president of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Washington. "The French are attempting to jealously guard their remaining power and influence by criticizing and tearing down US policies."

Not that such perceived disloyalty is new. "France has been cultivating its discordant voice since [former French president Charles] de Gaulle argued that we did not have to line up behind one or other of the superpowers," recalls Mr. Frachon.

As the first Western nation to recognize Communist China, France won a special place in Chinese hearts (72 percent of Chinese respondents saw French influence as positive).

Beijing also warms to French policies, such as its failed crusade earlier this year to end a 16-year-old EU ban on arms sales to China, and its support for China's push to unify with Taiwan.

For ordinary Chinese, however, the Parisian pull appears to be more cultural. "Well-educated people in Beijing like French films more than American films now," says Wang Qing, a specialist in French cultural exchanges for the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. "In French films we can see something more sophisticated."

Asked why the Chinese liked France, Wang Li, a woman in Shanghai, replied simply, "The French have money and good culture."

That impression has no doubt been boosted by the "French Culture Year" that recently featured more than 300 art, dance, and musical events around China. But that's small potatoes compared to the 60 years of French efforts to promote their relationship with neighboring Germany after fighting three wars in 70 years.

Those efforts have paid off. The hundreds of thousands of community, school, business, and cultural partnerships that have sprung up on both sides of the Rhine since the end of World War II have helped convince 77 percent of Germans that France plays a positive role in the world, according to the PIPA study.

German respect for French culture is deep. "They have a special feeling for design and art that makes them highly influential in the world," says Anete Bajrami, a newly qualified architect.

On the other side of the world, similar feelings inspire Stanley Peskin, owner of an independent video store in the comfortable Parktown North neighborhood of Johannesburg, South Africa.

"It has got the best ballet company in the whole world and some of the great film directors and novelists," enthuses Mr. Peskin. "The French have been fantastic."

While few of the people questioned in a brief survey of Johannesburg residents this week mentioned politics, their generally positive views of French design, culture, and food supported the survey's conclusion that 69 percent of South Africans consider France a welcome influence.

The South African government's interest in France should be seen in the context of Pretoria's relationship with the European Union, says Prince Mashele, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank in the capital.

"France is a key player within the European Union. South Africa has trade agreements with the European Union," Mr. Mashele explains. "It makes sense to maintain good relations with key players."

France's European identity is central to its popularity, suggests Dr. Kull, of PIPA. "France is most associated with the European Union, which has an even more positive rating than France," he says. "The EU is seen as using soft power and diplomacy, drawing other countries towards it, while the US uses more hard power and direct pressure, imposing its will."

Though France is still a medium world power, with a UN Security Council seat, a nuclear weapon and a worldwide network of alliances, says Vedrine, "and though France is often pretentious and grandiloquent, she is not threatening."

Paris could do more to build on its advantages, he adds, "listening more and seeking compromise. We could use our trump cards better."

GlobeScan's Miller also thinks France should be looking to the future. "Country branding is becoming a vital part of the economic future," he argues. "France clearly has a big advantage to grow from, but if they are not trying to take advantage of that they do so at their own risk and peril."

The trouble, says Vedrine, is that "our economic and social model is not working so well, and that will reduce our influence in the future.

"For the time being, though", he adds, "France still enjoys a gigantic power of attraction."

Kathleen McLaughlin in Shanghai, Andreas Tzortzis in Berlin, Stephanie Hanes in Johannesburg, and Nathaniel Hoopes in Boston contributed to this story.

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