18 April 2018

When it comes to soft power, Bowie beats Bayeux

By Des Brown

Tuesday’s speech by President Macron at the European Parliament was accompanied by the ceremony and red carpet adulation he has come to expect – and the summoning up of the
spirit of European unity reassuring to MEPs’ ears. It will no doubt prompt yet another piece by a British writer on Macron making France Great Again, notably through the pursuit of soft power.

Whenever I read such pieces I can’t help think of Ko-Ko in The Mikado, when he sings of “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own”. Or one in which France is lavishly praised for doing the things the UK has been rather good at for years. Macron may well be a triumph of hype over achievement in the area of French soft power.

In the 2017 rankings of world soft power nations, the UK came in 2nd – ahead of the USA, Germany and Japan. France achieved the number 1 position above the UK only by a whisker – 75.75 to the UK’s 75.72 – on the basis of being better networked.

If Macron is at the vanguard of French soft power, then I fail to see much concrete evidence that he’s making any impact beyond high-profile photo opportunities. This is nicely illustrated in a YouGov poll published on April 11 of the World’s Most Admired People.

The survey interviewed 37,000 people in 35 countries including China, India, the USA, Russia, Australia, South Africa, Brazil and Japan. Macron was nowhere to be seen. Indeed, there wasn’t a single French name on the 40-strong list. But there were four Britons – in the men’s list, David Beckham at 13 and in the women’s list, Queen Elizabeth (4), Emma Watson (6) and Theresa May (15).

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is often cited as an example of French soft power, but I honestly can’t see how an art gallery in an expatriate tax haven where the main diversions are shopping malls and 7 star hotels is of much significance. As a former resident of the UAE, I can assure you that this past weekend the eyes of that nation would not have been on the Globes: Vision of the World exhibition, but on Old Trafford, the Emirates, the Etihad and Stamford Bridge.

According to stats produced by the FA last year, the Premier League had 1.6 billion viewers in 189 countries – a popularity way beyond the wildest dreams of Ligue 1. PSG paid 222 million euros for Neymar in the hope he’d be lifting the European Cup next month, but it is Liverpool who now sit in the semi-finals, PSG having departed the competition in the round of 16.

And on the subject of museums, the French may have the Louvre in the desert, but we have the Titanic Museum in Belfast – voted by the World Tourism Awards in December 2016 the best Tourist Attraction in the World. And if expensive buildings are seen as significant to a country’s standing, it may be worth noting that the United States opened a new embassy in January costing $1 billion, the most expensive in the world. It’s not in Paris — it’s in Nine Elms.

As for cultural diplomacy, while the French are offering us the Bayeux Tapestry, it’s David Bowie and his Union flag coat who has been travelling the world as our exhibition ambassador.

The V&A’s big ticket attraction of 2013, David Bowie Is included over 300 objects, from Ziggy Stardust suits and his Union flag full length coat to original album covers, storyboards, handwritten lyrics, sketches, music scores and diary entries. It has toured the world as far and wide as the man himself.  The exhibition has already visited São Paulo, Berlin, Chicago, Melbourne, the Netherlands, Tokyo, Barcelona, Bologna and is currently drawing in the crowds in Brooklyn. It even thrilled Parisians three years ago.

Elsewhere, next week Broadway comes to a standstill for the most expensive non-musical production in New York theatre history (at a cost of over $68m). It isn’t a transfer from Paris. It is Jack Thorne and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 and 2 – which will be running until Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson are collecting their pensions.

And then there is AI. The French government has finally announced an Artificial Intelligence and tech strategy for France, but they’re playing catch up with the UK. As Harry De Quettevelle noted in The Daily Telegraph on March 18:

“After the continent-economies of America and China, this country has become – by almost any metric – the most powerful technology hub in the world. Indeed by some measures, like start-ups per capita, Britain now beats the United States. Last year London raised more than twice the amount of money to fund digital companies than any other city in Europe. Between 2012 and 2016, total investment in Britain reached £28bn, as much as our closest three rivals – France, Germany, the Netherlands – combined.”

Of course, one of the reasons the UK leads in the field is the access to high-calibre graduates and research at the country’s leading universities.

Whoever you ask, British universities fare very well indeed.  The QS World University Rankings have four (Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, Imperial College) in the top 10 and a total of 9 in the top 50. There is just one French university in the top 50 (ENS at 43).

The Times Higher Education rankings puts Oxford at Number 1 and Cambridge at 2 with a total of 12 UK institutions in the top 100. The highest-ranked French University was Paris Sciences & Lettres at 72 (the only one in the top 100).

On the environment too, Britain is playing a leading role through the Queen’s Canopy Project, creating a 53 country forest conservation project across the Commonwealth, from Epping Forest to the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada. Not the initiative of government, but royalty. As David Attenborough says in the ITV documentary The Queen’s Green Planet: “The Queen is an expert at wielding so-called soft power – whether it’s welcoming world leaders in London or dispatching her family on diplomatic missions abroad.”

Next month the bunting goes back up again for her grandson’s wedding in Windsor, a ceremony that is already generating huge global attention. I remember watching the US morning news shows in November when the engagement was announced – it was the lead story.

Globalisation cuts through national barriers and frontiers in a way unimaginable fifty years ago. Last week Jessie J became the first foreign performer to win the Chinese talent show Singer. She wasn’t the first British entertainer to gain fame through a TV talent show, but she was the first to achieve it in front of a one billion non-English speaking audience.

All of these examples are of British soft power being diverse, driven by an “anything’s possible” modern, forward-looking vision . So one way or another, when it comes to soft power whilst Macron may be enjoying red carpet receptions, it is the UK holding the world’s attention.

Des Brown is a journalist who writes about politics and foreign affairs.