The era of French scientific insularity is largely gone by, and most French historical research happens nowadays under the influence of and in dialogue with international trends. The recent renewal of interest in the history of diplomatic practices, the cultural history of diplomacy, diplomatic and semi-diplomatic personnel, cultural and economic diplomacy must however be reinstated in a specific context of French international history.1 The goal of this review essay is, through a series of readings, to highlight areas of recent French-speaking research on the history of diplomacy and diplomats. The list is far from exhaustive; it is also inevitably biased, highlighting the interests of its author. Written from an outsider’s perspective, it could easily be completed by scholars situated closer to the subject. It will however, one hopes, bring into view some of the trends visible in recent French-speaking literature.
1 From Diplomatic Biographies to the Cultural History of Diplomats
Christian Lequesne’s book Ethnographie du Quai d’Orsay seems like an odd place to start.2 A political scientist, Lequesne draws heavily from Iver B. Neumann in writing a participatory study on the French diplomatic corps. The book mostly deals with social reproduction and social homogeneity, the education of diplomats, practices and professional identities, and the changes wrought in the past 30 years by a combination of massive budget cuts, new administrative norms, new forms of communication, and changes in the international system. But he also brings into view a strong interest in the prosopographical and biographical studies of diplomats, recently renewed through studies aiming at a methodologically more modern and perhaps at times more critical take on diplomatic personalities and the French diplomatic corps.
Renaud Meltz’s biography of Alexis Léger, Raphaële Ulrich-Pier’s biography of René Massigli or Stanislas Jeannesson’s biography of Jacques Seydoux give us three excellent biographies of key French diplomatic figures, reflecting on the life of their subject, their social backgrounds and professional practices, their role in decision-making, and the structures in which they were working.3 These three figures also highlight different levels of French diplomacy, from the Paris-based economic expert Seydoux to the high-flying ministerial administrators and ambassadors Léger and Massigli. Isabelle Dasque’s 2005 doctoral thesis, unfortunately never published in book form, is another example of a modern prosopographical study of French diplomats.4 It deals with diplomats during the early decades of the Fourth Republic as a social, professional and political group, emphasizing especially the emergence in their ranks of the Republican bourgeoisie. One last example of this kind of research is a volume of contributions dealing with “writer-diplomats” during the 3rd and 4th Republics as a cultural and sociological group overlapping the literary and administrative fields.5
These publications originated from increasing communication between the methods and preoccupations of cultural studies and international history. This is best summarized in a 2014 programmatic text written by Isabelle Dasque and Renaud Meltz, where they described an array of studies applying the tools and concerns of cultural history to diplomacy and diplomats.6 Most of these studies remain focused on official diplomats and diplomacy, well in line with a French school of international history mostly concentrated on the state and its decision-making processes. More heterodox figures (non-official diplomats, multilateral agents…) are less studied, with a few notable exceptions such as Jean Monnet – a multilateral figure but also a French representative.7 One finds also some research for instance on women in diplomacy8 or, with Marc Loriol, on the links between the intimate and the professional in the practices of diplomatic couples.9
2 Negotiations, Conferences and Embassies
This cultural approach has also diffused into the history of negotiations, conference diplomacy, and visions of diplomacy as intercultural dialogue. The latter is well exemplified by Christian Windler, who studied French consular officers in Morocco and their activities as forms of cultural exchanges with figures of the “other” mixing projection and prejudices, mingling and distancing.10 Michel Espagne and others have also described diplomatic contacts as forms of “cultural transfers” linked to the circulations of norms, information, and models.11 Negotiations and conferences have also been studied as moments of intercultural contacts.12
Linked to this interest for the cultural history of diplomats and diplomacy, Marion Aballéa’s doctoral thesis on the French embassy in Berlin moves the focus from people to places.13 The book builds on extensive empirical research to recreate the long-term history of an institution, a building, and networks. The book’s thematic structure brings the eye of the reader, not so much to a limited series of dramatic events, but more to long-term patterns and evolutions, daily routines, the importance of places, practices, and people. From the ambassadors to the cooks, from the building to the secret correspondence, from great crises to consular work, Aballéa looks at a “diplomatic site” in its manifold dimensions, bringing forward the importance of places and geography in the diplomatic process.14
3 Administrative Histories of the Foreign Service
Administrative histories and presentations of the French “diplomatic machine” are another vantage point into recent French contributions to the history of diplomacy. Maurice Väisse’s recent edited volume15 inevitably brings to mind the massive Les affaires étrangères et le corps diplomatique français, an administrative history spanning more than 2000 pages and coordinated by Alain Baillou in the 1980s.16 Although Väisse’s volume is leaner, it has the same encyclopaedic ambitions and density (a feature compounded by clumsy editing). It also has the same strong links with the Ministry, whose employees are often allowed to tell their own stories. Nonetheless, the book remains one of the most up-to-date and complete surveys of the French Foreign Service. Behind its unassuming title, Marie-Christine Kessler’s book Les ambassadeurs gives one a less exhaustive but more reader-friendly overview of the field, with both historical and analytical depth. Kessler reinserts French diplomats between the upper classes of society, the “méritocratie à la française” bred in the specific environment of French elite university schools, and the peculiarities of the French civil service.17 She also tries to find the contours of a possible “French diplomatic style,” while reminding the reader of the fundamentally transnational nature of diplomatic norms (117–120), especially in the current globalized world and in the context of multilateral organisations.
Other interesting examples are to be found in studies of the French consular system18 and of the French colonial administration, with Christian Windler’s above-mentioned book as an obvious link between the two.19 Finally, one can observe a renewed interest in the study of para-diplomatic agents, networks, experts and back-channels. Recently, the 2018 book Experts et expertises en diplomatie 20 has gathered a number of contributions on this subject, including studies of the diplomatic roles of military envoys and spies.21 Networks and semi-diplomatic mediators have also been the objects of some publications, especially in a series of geographical case studies under the coordination of Antoine Marès.22 The bulk of French international history, however, seems to rarely move very far from the state.
4 Adjectivized Diplomacy, from Economic to Cultural
A third trend worth highlighting here is the interest of French researchers in adjectivized forms of diplomacy: trade, economic, cultural, public, etc. This is perhaps best approached through the work of Laurence Badel on French economic diplomacy and official trade promotion.23 French scholarship is not short of economic historians; Badel was, however, one of the first to look at the role of the French state in trade promotion and support for French companies abroad. She describes the way the French administration supported national companies abroad, the way this support evolved, and the long-term turf wars between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Another sub-category of diplomatic action dealt with in a series of books in the early 2000s is that of cultural international relations and cultural diplomacy.24 Some of these books, especially on cultural diplomacy, have been published in French but originate from outside France: a special issue of the journal Relations internationales dedicated to models of cultural diplomacy, for example, was coordinated by Matthieu Gillabert, from the Swizz university of Fribourg.25 Both of these fields – the interest for economic diplomacy and the interest for cultural and public diplomacy – are informed by the ambition of French historiography towards an all-encompassing history, une histoire totale. French international history has been keen to consider other aspects of international relations than politics and has thus been open to cultural and economic history.26
5 Other Times, Other Places
A notable specificity of this recent interest in diplomats and diplomacy as part of a history of international relations is its rather even chronological spread, from the Cold War back to the French 17th and 18th centuries. The dominant figure in the study of French diplomacy during the modern era is undoubtedly Lucien Bély,27 who was described in a review of his 1990 book on 17th century French diplomats as one of the rejuvenators of a “diplomatic history” inspired by cultural and intellectual history.28 Generally, France’s historians of the modern era have been trailblazers in a modernized interest for diplomacy and diplomatic practices, based on their analyses of the intricacies of France’s diplomatic relations between the 30 years war and the French Revolution. France’s contribution to the edification of contemporary diplomatic norms during the modern era makes it a particularly interesting case for historians of diplomacy and diplomats.29
If the vast majority of this production remains concentrated on the French case, there is also a fair amount of research dedicated to other states, mostly situated in France’s immediate vicinity. Obviously, a major part of this interest focuses on Germany, with a notable part dealing with European integration, but one could also emphasize the vivacity of French scholarship on Russian and Soviet diplomacy. Sabine Dullin’s work on Stalin’s interwar diplomats30 gives one a perfect example of such studies. In her book, Dullin not only looks at the political activities of the likes of Maxim Litvinov but also considers their social background, their integration in the norms of the transnational diplomatic corps, and the role of their representations of the world.
6 New Wine in Old Bottles?
Despite its programmatic interest in the deep trends and underlying structures of foreign policy and international relations, which might draw it away from diplomats, the French international history school has also traditionally emphasized the broad study of administrators, politicians, agents, their backgrounds and roles in decision-making processes.31 One could even say that the specificities of this French school of histoire des relations internationales (its early interest for a broad array of underlying factors, its relations with social sciences, its understanding of the links between the international and the domestic, its interest for the role of administration and politics, its focus on a variety of agents of foreign policy and international relations) make it somewhat easier for French researchers to understand the concerns of a renewed diplomatic history. One could take as an example of such precociousness a double issue of the academic journal Relations internationales dedicated to “new forms of diplomacy in the 20th century” already in 1982 (issues 31 and 32).
References to Pierre Renouvin and Jean-Baptiste Duroselle in French scholarship today can be seen as partially strategic, the reflex of scholars eager to embed their research in the dominant references, traditions and genealogies of a tightly knit national scientific field. However, that French school of international history has also proved flexible enough to retain coherence while accommodating within its broad confines paradigmatic shifts, new subjects of scholarly investigations, and far-ranging cooperation with the social sciences. A renewed interest in the history of diplomacy and diplomats, not only as cogs in the machine but as historical agents endowed with cultural, social and intellectual traits, has thus found its place in this tradition. This is best exemplified by the past three years’ annual special issues that Relations internationales has dedicated to “recent research.”32 These articles showcase the vitality and prominence of approaches representative of a new diplomatic history: biographical studies of diplomatic agents, studies in cultural diplomacy, the activities of semi-diplomatic agents (from trade unionists to soldiers), cultural studies of negotiations, legal and economic experts, non-state actors, human rights and international law, etc. Those researchers find their footing between a strong French historiographical tradition and the transnational evolutions of cultural and international history.