Digital soft diplomacy

Soft power increasingly relies on every aspect of digital technology (applications, websites, social networks, etc.). The social web has become a keystone.

What is soft power? What is its relationship with digital technology?

Soft power is aimed notably at promoting France’s image and thus defending our economic, linguistic and cultural interests. It also aims to raise general public awareness of the French Foreign Ministry’s work. It results from the combined efforts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ central services and diplomatic network.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in 1995 one of the first French institutions to set up a website. The website France Diplomatie now has close to 1.7 million visitors each month, almost a third of whom consult its flagship service: Advice for travellers.

Since 2008-2009, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has had a proactive communication policy on social networks. It was, for example, the first French Ministry to create a Twitter account in spring 2009: @francediplo. Since autumn 2012, regular sessions of questions and answers on Twitter and Facebook allow for an exchange with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France and throughout the French diplomatic network abroad.

On the social web, diplomacy is no longer merely a matter of State-State relations, but also of State-civil society relations. Social networks offer civil society the opportunity to exchange directly with the Ministry.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development is now present on several platforms in various languages:

The three focuses of the French Foreign Ministry’s digital communication strategy

  • Enhancing dialogue with French and foreign civil society
  • Strengthening the “public service” dimension of France Diplomatie and quality of service more generally
  • Supporting the diplomatic network in terms of digital communication

Here are a few tangible examples of projects implemented under these strategic focuses:

  • the graphical and ergonomic redesign of the France Diplomacy website using responsive web design techniques, in April 2013;
  • the editorial redesign of the whole site;
  • upgrading the France Diplomatie website in terms of accessibility (90% of the site is accessible by visually impaired persons);
  • launch of a blog "Carnets diplomatiques" (The French diplomats’ blog) in February 2014 with around 10,000 visitors per month;
  • emphasis on the creation of infographics;
  • creation of new foreign language accounts on Twitter and Facebook;
  • development of new practical services;
  • graphical and ergonomic redesign of the website template provided to the diplomatic network of embassies, consulates and diplomatic representations.

The digital communication of France’s diplomatic network

In 2015, more than 43 million Internet users visited the 269 sites of French embassies and consulates abroad which communicate in some 15 languages. At the same time, their social networking activity has intensified: 173 diplomatic posts communicate on Facebook and almost 128 on Twitter.

They mainly use Twitter and Facebook but are capable of adapting to the most widespread local usages and platforms: for example, the French Embassy in China communicates on Weibo

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ digital soft power strategy covers the diplomatic network and its main development focuses:

  • The Ministry provides its diplomatic network with many tools and services: editorial support, standard templates for embassy and consulate websites, hosting solutions, telephone and online assistance, and tutorials. This support concerns both their institutional website communication and social networks.
  • Since 2011, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has implemented a social web training programme for all diplomats newly posted abroad. Refresher courses are also provided, in the framework of the Diplomatic and Consular Institute (IDC).

Digital technology is central to policy on disseminating the French language and culture

Digital technology offers many opportunities to promote the “French brand” against a background of increasingly stronger power plays between countries and regional blocs as emerging powers assert themselves.

Thus, the ongoing large-scale programme of digitization of cinemas in the French cultural network abroad, in partnership with the French Institute (IF), UniFrance and the French National Centre for Cinematography and Motion Pictures (CNC), meets the need to disseminate our film production which has become digital over the past ten years. Some 30 cinemas were to be digitized by the end of 2015.

The French Institute has increased its capacity to act in the development of digital platforms for disseminating and using resources for a given theme (IF Verso, Culturethèque, IFcinéma), proposing institutional and event-related communication tools (IFmapp, IFmobile, Webtv).

In the field of French, the challenge is to be better present on a web largely dominated by English, which is why France supports projects like Afripedia which offers Wikipedia content in partnership with the French Institute (IF) and Orange, or the Mondoblog platform which brings together French-speaking bloggers as part of a partnership between the IF and Radio France Internationale (RFI). The French Foreign Ministry also focuses on broadening the offer of online training in French whether for teachers (“100,000 Teachers for Africa” project), professionals and secondary and higher education students (TV5 Monde project “Parlons français c’est facile”), and on developing digital tools encouraging contacts and exchanges between French teachers (Intraknow, Vizamonde, Sallesdesprofs).

Support for the digital strategy of the French media and audiovisual operators (France Médias Monde (FMM), TV5 Monde, CFI Media Cooperation, etc.) is continuing. This includes the development by those operators of applications and services to help develop mobile uses and exploit all means of digital terrestrial broadcasting.

The digital sector is also committed to the attractiveness of French higher education with, inter alia, the development of the France Université Numérique platform supported by the French Ministry for Higher Education and Research (MESR) and the French Foreign Ministry (MAEDI). The Agency for French education Abroad AEFE has also developed online student guidance services in partnership with the public publishing company ONISEP. The new alumni network plateforme alumni implemented by Campus France is now an important French soft power tool.

Digital technology and action to promote democracy and freedom of expression

In its actions, France advocates a broad definition of freedom of expression and human rights in all media. This includes the protection of bloggers and cyberdissidents.

For certain themes (minorities, LGBT issues, etc.), digital technology plays a central role in enabling dialogue and in networking actions and advocacy. Cooperation programmes led by the French Foreign Ministry attach increasing importance to digital technology and freedom of expression (multiannual programme of support for human rights defenders, implemented by the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues to which the Ministry contributes, and opening of foreign training programmes to bloggers and cyberdissidents as part of initiatives conducted by Reporters Without Borders, Safirlab programme).

French diplomatic posts support cyberdissidents, bloggers and human rights defenders, particularly in countries with repressive regimes (“digital asylum” concept).

In parallel with support for developing digital tools for human rights, the French Foreign Ministry will continue to support respect for freedom of expression on the Internet among the main international organizations, including the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), the Council of Europe, UNESCO, the OSCE and the EU.

Useful links

Updated: April 2016