It is now official the French Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs has decided to close the French Institute of Norway, alongside the French Institutes in Canada, Costa Rica and Brazil. This is in the Notification number 2303 made by the Ministry to the State Budget for 2020 on the 10th of October 2019, which can be found in this official document from the National Assembly (in French only).
The French Institute of Norway, or “Institut français de Norvège” as it is called in French, was founded in Norway in 1963, under the name the French Cultural Centre. It changed name in 2011 and is now located in Holtegata in Oslo with a regional office in Stavanger. There are dozens of Institutes around the globe and the government has entrusted the them with promoting French culture abroad through artistic exchanges: performing arts, visual arts, architecture, the worldwide diffusion of French books, film, technology and ideas. Accordingly, the institute has developed a new scientific program for the dissemination of culture. In short, the French Institute of Norway has three objectives: promoting French culture, offering French language classes and scientific cooperation and has become a vital institution not just for the 5000 French people living in Norway but also for the Norwegian francophiles who either learn French, attend the French Film Festival or enjoy a French opera at the Opera House.
The French-Norwegian cooperation is currently stronger than ever. This year marks 100 years of existence of the French Norwegian Chamber of Commerce. Last year both countries also celebrated 100 years of cooperation in education, with hundreds of Norwegian teenagers enrolled in the Pierre Corneille (Rouen) and Alain Chartier (Bayeux) high schools to follow the French curriculum. Queen Sonja and Brigitte Macron and both ambassadors attended the ceremony in France. This anniversary led to the signing of a new and reinforced framework agreement between France and Norway in the fields of education, research, innovation, industry and culture. So why is the French government closing the French institute?
But then why shut it down?
The reasons for closing the French Institute are written in long sentences in complex legal documents, but it comes down to one thing: money.
Officially, the notification no.2303 made by the Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs in October 2019 mentions the French Institute of Norway’s inability to raise external funding and to have healthy finances. According to Mr Stephane Mukkaden, who is one of the elected Consular advisors to the French community of Norway and Iceland since 2014, this reasoning is hard to defend. He says that “While it is true that the French Institute of Norway has experienced financial difficulties a few years ago, it is now making profits thanks in particular to a consolidation of its finances in recent years”. The French Institute has also been receiving funding from the Norwegian government.
The Senator Hélène Conway-Mouret, who is the Senate’s representative for French people living abroad, told us on a phone interview that the Ministry has to reduce staff-related spending, and closing French Institutes is one way of doing that. The French Institute has a total of 41 staff, of which 35 are on local contracts. The Ministry will no longer be responsible for those positions, while the 6 other employees with French contracts attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could be merged with the French embassy’s staff. The question of course is how it is possible to hold a cultural activity, French classes and scientific cooperation with so little staff and almost no budget.
The French government is also thinking of selling the building in which the French Institute is located, which it owns. Or potentially moving the French embassy tho Holtegata and selling other properties it owns in Oslo. All this is still up in the air. In any case, the operation would make the French government save some money. But at which cost? Is this what French culture is worth?
The government is contradicting itself with this decision, and even its previous State Budget of 2019 where it is clearly stated that “cultural diplomacy is a priority, with a reinforcement of cultural diplomacy through more funding and a strengthening of the role of French Institutes”. So, what next?
How will this impact the French-Norwegian relationship?
It is very hard to say how the disappearance of the French Institute would affect the French-Norwegian relationship. Mainly because it is not done yet, discussions in the Senate are still heated and the final decision will be legally acted on the 31st of December 2019. According to Senator Hélène Conway-Mouret who visited Oslo in October, “the closing of the French Institute of Norway, decided this year, is incomprehensible. It is contrary to local needs and expectations and could create long lasting tensions with the (Norwegian) authorities, who are very generous in their support for our presence and our activities”.
One can also wonder what will happen to the the reinforced framework agreement between France and Norway signed in 2018 between Norway and France in the fields of education, research, innovation, industry and culture. Once the Institute disappears, even if private initiatives are created to ensure French classes, they would not be included in an inter-governmental cooperation. Cultural activities and scientific cooperation of the Institute would also be severely impaired due to the total staff decreasing so much (from 41 to 6 staff in total). Hence, it will be crucial to see what is decided in the next months regarding the remaining activities and budget of the former Institute staff rejoining the French embassy in Norway.
On the bright side, French companies are still very present in Norway, and Norwegians cannot get enough of the bakeries and restaurants inspired by French cuisine or led by French cooks. However, French is not the first foreign language Norwegians choose at school or even later in life. With less French culture and language in Norway, other languages such as German and Spanish are more likely to be chosen by Norwegians. Since the decision was made known to the staff in the French Institute, two members of the staff are planning to create their own private school to try and make sure the courses offered by the French Institute will continue and that students will see as little difference as possible.
But this leaves many questions open: what will happen with the cultural presence of France in Norway and the great work which was done by the French Institute? In March 2018 President Macron announced his ambitious plan for “la francophonie”: “to make French one of the three greatest world-languages of the 21st century and an asset for globalization”. Although I salute the French language school initiative of the two soon-to-be former staff of the Institute, isn’t it the government’s role to fund and manage its own ambitious plan for French language in the world rather than leaving this task to small private initiatives being created based on individuals’ motivation?
In 2013, a strong mobilization of the French diaspora and locals had managed to avoid the closing of the French Institute of Berlin. Last week, after making this information public in an article I wrote*, an online petition was created by French nationals living in Norway, and many of us hope that francophone and francophile Norwegians will join us to save the French Institute. There is still hope, since the final decision is still being discussed in the French Senate.