Philanthropy and the State in France

The State as a symbolic resource in the philanthropic world? The example of the American Friends groups of French cultural institutions

Editors’ Note: Anne Monier continues HistPhil‘s forum on Philanthropy and the State in France. Bringing a transnational lens to philanthropic giving in contemporary France (and with a particular focus on American Friends groups), Monier argues that the French State is playing a critical role in encouraging private funding of the country’s cultural institutions. Within this transnational context, the French State is facilitating philanthropic giving by putting “its own symbolic resources at [the] disposal” of American Friends groups.  

Studying philanthropy does not only mean focusing on non-profit actors, it also means examining the role of the State and the interpenetration of the public and the private sectors. Some researchers have addressed this issue by showing the complementarity and links between philanthropy and the State, while others have done so indirectly by questioning the relationship between philanthropy and capitalism. This post will focus on the intertwining of the public and private sectors by studying a particular form of philanthropy—transnational cultural philanthropy—and in particular the work of the American Friends groups of French cultural institutions such as the Louvre Museum or the Paris Opera.

What are American Friends groups? These are American organizations that benefit from the 501(c)3 status of the US tax code, allowing foreign institutions to raise funds overseas while benefitting from tax deductions (for the donors) and exemptions (for the organization). For example, the American Friends of the Louvre makes it possible for U.S. taxpayers to give money to the Louvre Museum, and in return, receive tax deductions.

There is a significant number of American Friends groups in the United States. The GuideStar website lists between 1,000 and 2,500 (depending on the search terms). These Friends groups focus on various topics from education, health, religion to humanitarianism and work both within and beyond the US, spanning all continents. These organizations are, however, strongly concentrated in Europe. The three countries with the largest number of American Friends groups have close and long-standing relations with the United States: Israel, the United Kingdom, and France.

I specifically study the American Friends groups with focus on cultural institutions in France. These are groups of Americans giving money to institutions such as the Louvre Museum, the Paris Opera, and the Château de Versailles. In fact, the development of these organizations in France tracks the rise of philanthropy in the country.

In the 1980s, these American Friends groups experienced a first rise, particularly in the context of the voluntarist policy led by the State (for example, the creation of the Fondation de France in the 1970s and the adoption of tax incentive legislations in the 1980s). In the years since 2000, there has been an even more important development in the history of philanthropy in France, marked by the implementation of the Aillagon law (offering to individuals an income tax reduction equal to 66% of the amount paid and up to 20% of the taxable income, and to companies a reduction of the corporate tax equal to 60% of the amount paid and up to 0.5% of the sales revenue).

All that said, it is really in the years since 2010 that the number of these American Friends groups in France has really boomed. The economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent European debt crisis, which led in France to several budget cuts especially in the field of culture (in 2013 and 2014, for example, the budget of the Ministry of Culture fell by around 3 % each year), accelerated the development of these organizations. For starters, these budget cuts encouraged French cultural institutions to develop their own resources. Some of these cultural institutions, well-known internationally, sought private funding not only from within France but also from abroad. And when looking abroad, they mostly turned to the United States, often considered a “fundraising el dorado” (Siméant 2005).

The general mission of American Friends organizations is to raise funds in the United States for the benefit of the institution(s) to which they are attached. To do this, they organize events (galas, dinners, conferences, private visits, etc.) whether in the United States or in the country where the institutions are located.

Compared to other U.S. institutions, American Friends of French cultural institutions tend to perceive that it is harder for them to raise funds in the US, largely because the institutions for which they raise funds are foreign. Even more, this kind of transnational philanthropy lacks a certain degree of legitimacy. These difficulties are all the more important as American Friends groups evolve in a particularly competitive– specifically, New York– philanthropic environment (Ostrower, 1997, 2004).

To cope with these difficulties, American Friends of French organizations are developing different strategies. The most important strategy has been to leverage the symbolic capital of the benefits they offer to their donors. So American Friends groups offer to their donors —for a relatively small amount of money—an important gain of symbolic capital (prestige, recognition and visibility). And to offer such symbolic capital to their donors, American Friends groups have turned to the French State, which puts its own symbolic resources at their disposal.

One way the staff and board members of American Friends groups overcome this difficulty is by offering potential donors significant symbolic capital. To do this, American Friends rely on the French State, through the opening of power places (by organizing events in the Elysées Palace, the Senate or other key places) and deploying State prestige (such as receiving donors for a dinner at the Elysée Palace or inviting them to a private tour of the Hôtel de Ville). Building upon the French State’s role in encouraging such transnational philanthropic practices, I focus on the transnational transformation of capital, through the study of the “business” of decorations (medals). For example, several American Friends groups’ donors have received decorations like the Legion of Honor: These are subject to a real commodification, showing how the conversion of economic capital into symbolic capital works in a transnational setting.

My research thus shows that if French cultural institutions succeed in raising funds in the United States, it is also thanks to the help of the French State, which provides these groups with symbolic resources by organizing very prestigious events in luxury palaces or attributing medals (Légion d’honneur) to donors. This finding leads to a subsequent question of what exactly economic elites in the U.S. appreciate in the French State. It is interesting, for instance, to see how these Americans reclaim symbolic capital from the French State. It seems that the aspects of the State that are most appreciated by these American donors are those which are based on the most monarchical aspects of State power and forms of representation of power that are quite foreign to them. The example of the American Friends groups makes us think about the transnational representation of the State and its symbolic capital.

In addition, this symbolic capital is not simply a way to recognize those who contribute to the financing of French culture, but also a way of attracting donors: This is because symbolic capital exists for donors both before and after a philanthropic gift is made. The symbolic capital thus precedes the economic capital, reversing the order of the gift. Reinforcing the dominance between donor and recipient, this peculiarity leads us to rethink the philanthropic relationship as a relationship centered primarily on donors (and what they perceive to be gaining in this exchange). This furthermore leads one to wonder whether the principal purpose of this transnational philanthropic exchange is to serve the symbolic capital desires of American donors or the financial needs of French cultural institutions. This fact is also part of the delegitimization of this form of philanthropy, considered by some actors (French and American) as a form of “begging” of French cultural institutions across the Atlantic, all the more “shameful” when conducted by senior officials (institution presidents, curators, etc.)

Lastly, this investigation into the American Friends groups shows how the private and the public sectors in France collaborate in philanthropy. It is not a mere privatization of public tasks, but an interpenetration: French State actors (for example diplomats, but also curators) sometimes act as private actors (by raising funds) while philanthropic actors such as the fundraising staff at American Friends groups at times act as public actors (by carrying out real actions of cultural diplomacy and promoting French culture). Thus, if we speak today of a “commodification” of culture, we can evoke the emergence of a certain “commodification” of cultural diplomacy, which no longer aims simply to “make people love France” but to “make those who love France give money.” These transformations are in line with a generalized fundraising movement by the French State. Thus, in a Europe in crisis, in need of financial means, the French State offers – or rather monetizes – what it still has and which “cannot be bought,” converting a part of its symbolic capital into economic capital.

-Anne Monier

Alumna of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Anne Monier holds a Ph.D in social sciences and is a postdoctoral fellow at CRESPPA and affiliate to the Maurice Halbwachs Center (EHESS / ENS / CNRS). Her dissertation, which focused on “Transnational philanthropic mobilizations: the ’American Friends’ of French cultural institutions” is going to be published (PUF) in September 2019. She was a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, New York University, and Harvard University.


Anne Monier, « L’État comme ressource symbolique dans le monde philanthropique ? L’exemple des American Friends des institutions culturelles françaises », in N. Duvoux (ed.) « Philanthropies et prestige d’Etat en France xixe-xx » siècles, Genèses. Sciences sociales et histoire, 2017/4 (n° 109), p.100-117.

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