Over the years I’ve noticed many international organizations—subjectively it seems disproportionately many—were founded in France. A partial list is in part II of this post, so skip ahead and come back if you like.
Why is this the case? There are two reasons I can think of, one natural and one ideological. France has been a large and influential nation for centuries, at some points the most influential in the West, and Paris is famously beautiful and pleasant to visit. It’s in a relatively convenient geographical location, especially before air travel became widespread. It stands to reason many European and international meetings to found things would be held there. I’m sure that explains some of them without the need for a deeper explanation.
The more interesting reason is an extension of Hayek’s idea that among Continental and especially French thinkers since Descartes, Rousseau, and the French Revolution there was/is a tendency to think social institutions must be directed centrally. It was probably inevitable that almost all of these organizations would eventually form somewhere, but my guess is that this constructivist rationalist mindset tended to get them founded in France earlier than they otherwise would have elsewhere rather than having them come up organically here and there.
What really got me thinking about this was noticing French organizations for non-French things, e.g. FIFA, on which I spent a lot of time last November and December. Why would the French take the lead in creating the international governing body of one of the great English cultural products? Considering the history of the sport this case might fall a little into both categories* but once I noticed this case I noticed many more that were clearer. The proximate cause of my writing this post was a mention in this piece by Eli Dourado of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, “an international organization that sets standards for tracking, measuring, and verifying aviation records”. It makes all the sense in the world for the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie to be headquartered in Paris. There’s nothing particularly French about aviation records. Or association football. Or diplomacy. Or the rest of the things listed below. The stronger connection to France is constructivism, thinking somebody, preferably them, ought to be in charge of these things. The people who have this thought more consistently than others will tend to become the people in charge of these things.
After World War II and continuing to the present, many organizations were founded under the auspices of the United Nations, the EEC/EU, World Bank/IMF, etc., so headquarters tend to be created in other places like Switzerland, Belgium, New York, Washington D.C., etc. France still gets many of them, but that has more to do with politicking than with constructivist rationalism. Readers will notice the range of dates in the French list is from the period broadly representing the height of the practical power of constructivist rationalism worldwide—coming after the height of its intellectual power—which period is after the height of specifically French cultural power. (Pardonnez-moi, mes amis, mais c’est vrai.)
Here is a list of organizations founded in France. English translations follow the names, either direct translations or more common translations where applicable. Plain font indicates still in France, bold indicates moved to the French-speaking part of Switzerland, italics indicates moved to the German-speaking part. Note how few have anything to do with uniquely French things.
- Académie Diplomatique Internationale (International Diplomatic Academy), 1926
- Académie Internationale d’Héraldique (International Academy of Heraldry), 1949
- Association Internationale Permanente des Congrès de la route (Permanent International Association of Road Congresses), 1909 – named changed in 1995 to Association mondiale de la Route (World Road Association)
- Bureau International des Expositions (International Exhibitions Bureau), 1928
- Bureau international des poids et mesures (International Bureau of Weights and Measures), 1875
- Chambre de commerce internationale (International Chamber of Commerce), 1919
- Comité international olympique (International Olympic Committee), 1894
- Comité International des Sports des Sourds (International Committee of Sports for the Deaf, 1924 – since moved to Maryland
- Conseil international des archives (International Council for Archives), 1948
- Conseil international des musées (International Council of Museums), 1946
- Conseil international des unions scientifiques (International Council of Scientific Unions), 1931 – renamed in 1998 to Conseil international pour la science (International Council for Science)
- Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (International Aeronautics Federation), 1905
- Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (International Federation of Film Archives), 1938
- Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Films (International Federation of Film Producers Associations), 1933
- Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (International Automobile Federation), 1904
- Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation), 1923
- Fédération Internationale des Échecs (World Chess Federation), 1924 – since moved to Athens, Greece
- Fédération Internationale d’Escrime (International Fencing Federation), 1913 – superseded the Société d’encouragement de l’escrime, founded in France 1882
- Fédération Internationale de Football Association (International Federation of Association Football), 1903 – one of the most famous orgs in the world and known everywhere by its French acronym
- Fédération Internationale des Journalistes (International Federation of Journalists), 1926 – since moved to Brussels, Belgium
- Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’homme (International Federation for Human Rights), 1922
- Union Cycliste Internationale (International Cycling Union), 1900
There are more, but I’ll stop here. (Time is the ultimate scarce resource.)
I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t conclusive. I wouldn’t swear by it. But just look at that list. I know my sample is not random, but you’ll notice the phenomenon too. I first drafted this post in 2016 and completed the last 10% now because I’ve been thinking about FIFA and it still strikes me as an interesting question. I repeat, in many or most of these cases it was probably inevitable that a central global body would emerge. Association football is a clear case: people would want cross-border competitions. And often it’s a good thing to have a focal governing or coordinating body. (Je ne vous accuse, mes amis.)
Moreover I don’t think the end result is necessarily suboptimal. I don’t have an opinion about the quality of governance by these organizations except FIFA and UCI, which were bound to have their problems no matter who ran them or where. However, I do think this is another grain of evidence on the scale in favor of Hayek’s assessment.
* A bit of history from FIFA’s website:
When the idea of founding an international football federation began taking shape in Europe, the intention of those involved was to recognise the role of the English who had founded their Football Association back in 1863. Hirschman, secretary of the Netherlands Football Association, turned to the Football Association. Its secretary, FJ Wall, did accept the proposal but progress stalled while waiting for the Executive Committee of the Football Association, the International FA Board and the associations of Scotland, Wales and Ireland to give their opinion about the matter.
Guérin, secretary of the football department of the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques and a journalist with Le Matin newspaper, did not want to wait any longer. He contacted the national associations on the continent in writing and asked them to consider the possibility of founding an umbrella organisation.
The rest here.