F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.01 - May 1995

Culture Wars

By John Andrews

François Mitterrand, 78 years old and stricken with cancer, can still play to the gallery. "Europe," declared France's president on a swan-song visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, "must be more than economic balance sheets and tons of freight. I would say, but I don't want to exaggerate, that it needs a soul... Europeans must love Europe."

But a stroll through Paris, city of romance, suggests that all is not well with this love affair. The films in Montparnasse and on the Champs Elysées are American - Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Mrs Doubtfire - and the hamburgers are McDonalds. Turn on the television and Magnum springs to action, the Selleck moustache not quite in time with the French-dubbed soundtrack. Switch on Radio Nostalgie and the songs are by Elvis and the Beach Boys. "Cool" is the cool word among French youth, and the coolest also say "fuck", a habit picked up from watching Pulp Fiction. Even newscasters are succumbing to the lure of the American - describing the last big Los Angeles earthquake as "pas le Big One".

France's patriarchs are outraged. Europe's love affair with Europe is threatened by this cultural flirtation with Americans, and they are determined to put a stop to it - single-handed if necessary, but with the full weight of the European Union behind them if possible. France's preferred weapon against the cultural invaders of Paramount, CNN and MTV is quotas. Anything non-European must be strictly rationed. The majority of what appears on television and radio must be European - and preferably French. As for cinema, the French already impose a levy on the ticket price, and plough the money back into French movie productions.

Slowly, but so far steadily, the French are manoeuvring the European Commission into steps to tighten restrictions on imports of American - well, strictly, non-European, but nobody is in any real doubt as to who the proposed laws are aimed at - films, television shows and music. The hype over the imminent advent of interactive television, video on demand, music delivered over the Internet and so on increases the French resolve. If they do not make a stand now, they believe, it will soon be too late. But on the contrary, it is already too late for the sorts of measures the French have in mind.

In an age of interactive media, cultural quotas will prove at least as self-defeating - and if anything more useless - as France's last great attempt to wall itself off from invaders: the Maginot Line. This "impenetrable" wall of fortifications was designed after the First World War to prevent the Germans from ever again marching across French soil. What its designers forgot, however, was that the new technology of tanks and aeroplanes rendered fixed fortifications obsolete. Invaders could simply go around the forts, and at speed. The Maginot Line lasted only a few weeks at the opening of the Second World War, and, with its sense of false security punctured, France collapsed.

New technology similarly makes a nonsense of the quotas which the French would try to use to defend themselves against American films. In sober moments, some Frenchmen would even admit so. But the temptation for the French - and even for other Europeans - to do something, anything, about the Americans now seems too strong to resist. Electronic communication has bred new familiarity, and familiarity is breeding contempt.

France stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from America on a whole variety of issues. Once a global power, it is now merely another medium-sized nation. Molière is no longer as famous as Shakespeare. French is no longer the language of diplomacy; English is. And even its former colonies teach English in their schools - to children who listen to American rock-and-roll, drink Coca Cola and eat hamburgers.

Unlike Americans, who see the highest morality in allowing individuals to choose whatever they wish to do - however stupid it may appear to others - the French believe, more so than most other Europeans, that the elite has a moral duty to lead the masses. Economically, this is the land of Colbert, central planner to Louis XIV, not Adam Smith and the "invisible hand of the marketplace". For evidence, take a peek at a 1993 interview given to the Financial Times by Edouard Balladur, prime minister of France and now the favourite to succeed Mitterrand in this spring's presidential elections. "What is the market?" asked Balladur. "It is the law of the jungle. And what is civilisation? It is the struggle against nature."

Culturally, France is the land of the Académie Française, which strives, albeit with only partial success, to dictate the form of the language and to define the heights of culture. It is probably the only nation in the world in which a group of intellectuals talking about books can command near-prime-time television. So to hell with Mickey Kantor, US trade negotiator, Mickey Mouse, and all other Americans. Ils ne passeront pas. France is not about to agree to free trade in "audio-visual" products. Instead, it intends to protect its cultural heritage, and in the process also the patrimoine of other Europeans, less alert than France to the incoming tide of transatlantic banality.

Of course, France's cultural outrage is all the stronger for being buttressed by a deeper layer of economic self-interest. Culture - films, television, music, computer games - is big business, and the business will get bigger with every digitising leap of technology and with every telephone or computer or cable company that decides to step outside its traditional area.

When experts for the European Commission in Brussels did their sums last year, they reckoned Europe's audiovisual sector to be worth some $325 billion (£200 billion), with software sales accounting for just over half of the global total. More to the point, the sector supposedly employs 1.8 million people "in software alone" - and the number could grow to 4 million, directly or indirectly, "if we devote the necessary efforts to it." With a tenth of Europe (17 million people) now jobless, it is no wonder that Eurocrats are tempted to take extraordinary measures to grab those jobs.

True, these are extremely self-interested calculations, and the Hollywood lobby scoffs at the arithmetic. (As do Europe's assorted computer and software companies; even on the widest definition, can software really employ more people than an automobile industry where there are still giants like Volkswagen, Renault and Fiat?) But it does not take heroic calculations to come up with enough to worry the French. Take the economic balance sheet so unloved by President Mitterrand. Of America's audio-visual exports, from films to CD-ROMs, some 60 per cent are sold to Europe. Since precious little gets sold back to the Americans, the result for the Europeans is a whopping deficit: $3.6 billion (£2 billion) in 1992, a tenfold increase in less than a decade.

Part of the evidence is in virtually every cinema in western Europe. At the end of the 1960s, American films took a third of the box-office in Europe. By the end of the 1970s the share was almost a half. Now it averages 80 per cent, and even France, which has fought hard to buck the trend, last year saw the share of takings for its own films dip for the first time below 30 per cent. And Europe's exports to the United States? Even with such hits as Chariots of Fire and Four Weddings and a Funeral (both of them, the French will note, in the English language), European films usually total only a miserable one per cent of the American box office.

The figures are equally depressing from every angle. Europe's regular cinema audiences - the kind for whom Saturday night is still movie night - are a shrinking breed, down over the past 15 years from 1.2 billion to 550 million. But that decline has affected only European films; the audience watching the American imports has remained stable, and presumably satisfied, at around 450 million. Whatever way you cut the figures, Europe likes America's films and America's stars. Gerard Depardieu may be an idol of the French cinema, but he will never match the European - let alone the global - audience of Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone.

Aux armes citoyens

Things are worse at the top. In 1975, nine of the ten highest-earning films in France were French films and only one was American. Compare that with the 1992 list: seven American films, one British and just two French titles. Or 1991, when the top ten was all American. True, last year was something of a comeback: five French films attracted audiences of more than 2 million each but the top three in France were all foreign: Disney's The Lion King, England's Four Weddings and a Funeral (ah, perfidious Albion...) and Mrs Doubtfire, as played by Robin Williams.

Given those sorts of statistics, even sensible Frenchmen have come to worry that, if current trends continue unchecked, no European cinema will bother to show a Depardieu movie - and so no producer will bother to make one. This is at least partly because dominant cinema chains, like Warner, are the offspring of the American production houses.

Unfortunately, even sensible Frenchmen seem to have jumped straight from an understandable worry into self-defeating panic. The reason President Mitterrand was lecturing European parliamentarians on the need to defend Europe's culture is that France, for the first half of this year, has the rotating presidency of the European Union. So the French government sets the agenda for joint action by all 15 EU member states, and high on the French agenda is a revision of a 1989 EU directive somewhat ironically known as Television Without Frontiers, which lays down the law for the member states on trade in audiovisual goods.

What the directive says is simple enough in its essence: member states shall "reserve for European works ... a majority proportion of their transmission time" and will "reserve at least 10 per cent of their transmission time ... or alternately, at least 10 per cent of their programming budget, for European works created by producers who are independent of broadcasters."

Reading between the lines is equally straightforward. Television companies deliver, indeed create, mass culture; they are also the biggest single buyers of movies. If they are left to themselves and the forces of the free market, they will usually tend to buy American - for two reasons. First because Hollywood is the world's greatest star-making machine, and is the source of most of the names that people recognise and the media brands that they want to buy. Second, and not unrelated, because America is the world's largest media market, it can export films, television shows and other media products to the rest of the world at very low prices. Having recovered their costs (and probably made a profit) in America, any extra revenue that can be garnered from export is all cream. So European programme-makers - and the zealots would claim, European culture - will survive only if they are guaranteed a share of the market, including special requirementsa for big TV companies to buy from the independents - so the protectionists argue.

Jacques Toubon, France's culture minister, claims that without quotas and other regulations, the number of European programmes shown on TF1, France's most popular television channel, would drop from 4,000 a year to 600. Certainly there is no shortage of regulations - for France has gone well beyond the minimum regulations laid down in the Television Without Frontiers directive. France insists on 60 per cent European programming on its television, rather than the simple majority laid down in the directive, and half must be in French. Television cannot show films on Wednesday evenings, when cinemas put on new releases. Nor can they show films during prime-time on the traditional cinema-going nights of Friday and Saturday. Moreover, each TV channel can show an average of two films a week.

That is not all. Television channels must invest the equivalent of 15 per cent of turnover into French fiction, documentaries or animation; the equivalent of three per cent of its turnover must be spent on domestic film production. Canal Plus, France's "de-regulated" pay television station, is required to invest 20 per cent of turnover in new films, half of which must be French-speaking. Although the French courts recently overthrew as unconstitutional a law which would have forced private-sector TV stations to eschew borrowed English words - le weekend, le meeting, le leader, and so on - that are sprinkled through every newscast, but there is a law that requires the country's eight FM radio networks to increase their French music content to a minimum of 40 per cent, half of it from "new French talent."

Les chevaux de troie?

No wonder that Jeanne Moreau, François Truffaut's star and collaborator, recently complained to Newsweek that the new generation of French directors are more interested in bureaucratic manoeuvring for subsidies than wooing audiences with their art - subsidies are where the easy money is. But a larger problem, and one that threatens to give the lie to Toubon's claims for the usefulness of subsidies, is that the requirements for French programming seem to be outstripping French creativity. To meet their quotas, subsidised French producers are expensively re-creating American banalities. French TV is full of soaps that make Dynasty look like Shakespeare. It boasts a French music channel called MCM (which is a rather good copy of MTV) and it broadcasts a subsidised news channel called Euronews - a vain attempt to compete with CNN.

In his determination to block Europe's gates to any audiovisual or cultural Trojan horse (or cheval de Troie, as Toubon would call it), Toubon does not seem to have asked himself which is the more powerful force of cultural infiltration: an original American programme, or a Frenchified copy of similar ideas and characters. According to the law, what makes a film or programme French, or European, is simply where the film is shot - not where the ideas come from. And Toubon and his allies are determined to keep the European cameras rolling by keeping the products of American ones out.

France must be taken seriously in its determination to produce a "better" version of the Television Without Frontiers directive. Some sort of revision is legally required, because the law itself demands that it be reconsidered now that it is five years old. While some Europeans might argue that, because the directive has failed, it should be scrapped, France replies that if it has failed, it should therefore be improved. Presidency of the European Union now gives them the political opportunity to make those improvements - which they will no doubt pursue with the same hard-headed negotiating tactics last employed two years ago, in the closing days of 1993's Uruguay round of trade negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Mickey Kantor, negotiating on behalf of the US, was then adamant that Europe must stop its cultural protectionism; Sir Leon Brittan, his EU counterpart (and, in French eyes, an untrustworthy Briton), was sympathetic; and Jack Valenti, chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, wheeled the Hollywood lobby into action. Was France really ready to prevent the best agreement on free trade that had ever been dangled before the world, merely to restrict America's access to European screens? We shall never know. In the stand-off, first France's EU partners blinked, and then the Americans. France got what it wanted: a "cultural exception" - the exclusion of audiovisual trade from the rules of the Gatt and its new successor, the World Trade Organisation. So now, from their position at the head of the Commission, the French are pondering what to do with their opportunity.

One way to make the Television Without Frontiers directive tougher is to close some of its loopholes. The present directive has at least two that the canny broadcaster can usefully exploit. Programming quotas shall be applied only "where practicable". Even where quotas are enforced, they can be filled by cheap, locally-produced variety and talk shows - leaving culture-forming dramas to be bought in from abroad.

Some of these loopholes are already being challenged in court. Ted Turner is currently battling his way through the EU legal labyrinth over just how much Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck he is allowed to show on his TNT & Cartoon Network. The Belgian government says TNT's European content doesn't meet the minimum 50-per-cent-and-a-bit quota - and so should be banned from Belgium's cable system. Turner says the quota is impracticable for cartoons and, in any case, TNT is broadcasting with a valid British licence which - under the rules of the European "single market" - is therefore valid throughout the EU, including Belgium.

Under the current directive, Turner undoubtedly has a case. Revise it, and he may not. One idea drafted by the European Commission (the EU's executive body) is to strike out the "where practicable" phrase. Another is to exclude locally-made variety shows from what counts towards the European quota - which will mean that the broadcasting companies will have to buy or commission more European films instead. After a five-year transition period for new channels, broadcasters would have to show that they devote a majority of either their transmission time or their programming budget (or both) to European-produced programmes. In other words, Mr Turner, find some European cartoons (maybe from Poland?) to meet your quota - or pay a price for staying loyal to Bugs Bunny.

Such proposals have already inspired bitter Euro-wrangling. The French think they are too lenient. France hates the notion of allowing broadcasters to spend their way out of the local-content quota. Budgets are hard to monitor and, in any case, the idea is to increase the time given to European programmes - so broadcasters should have no choice. But other European nations have more mixed emotions about language, trade and culture.

Laissez Faire English

The British are, unsurprisingly, the freest cultural traders. Not only is the government by instinct laissez faire, but most of the cultural imports that worry the French are in English - which can hardly arouse the same suspicions in England as in France. The Belgians care passionately about language, but are themselves divided among Dutch- and French-speaking inhabitants - and so, quite literally, do not speak with a single voice to the rest of Europe. Germans are increasingly irked that the rest of Europe insists on learning English (83 per cent of the European Union's secondary-school students learn English as a second language, compared with 32 per cent learning French and only 16 per cent German). But like Italy, Germany is a relatively new country, not much more than a century old. Regional cultures and loyalties still tug harder at German and Italian hearts than national ones, leaving them instinctively pluralistic or at least sympathetic to pluralism.

Were television broadcasts the only issue at stake, France might well find itself standing vainly alone against the American invaders. But there is a second strand to Europe's cultural unease - new technology, which is all the more worrying because it is all the more unknown. In optimistic moments, liberal Europeans enthuse about technology's power to crash across cultural and national boundaries, bringing the fresh wind of democracy and new ideas in its wake. But those benefits are of course for other, less enlightened peoples. For enlightened Europeans themselves, the fear is that new ideas will inevitably be bad ones - not just banal American soap operas and brainless game shows but also alt.sex and (heaven help us) its interactive video equivalent. The prospect of lycées and Schules full of fresh-faced Euro-adolescents devoting their leisure hours to the pursuit of international, er, relations makes even normally-cautious Eurocrats wonder if perhaps some safety precautions might quietly be put into place.

So the Commission's relevant Eurocrats - most of whom, you may already have guessed, are dirigiste (interventionist) Frenchmen rather than laissez faire northern Europeans - also quietly propose to extend trade "safeguards" for new technologies, such as video-on-demand. The original 1989 directive simply ignored new technologies. In principle, today's proposed revisions exclude them from regulation. Online services and "personal communications", such as the vast majority of Internet traffic, have never been included in the quota system. Drafts of the proposed revisions also state that quotas "shall not apply" to local broadcasts (such as "ethnic" stations) nor to "communication services that operate only on individual demand" - which is presumably Eurojargon for video-on-demand and pay-per-view.

But in Euro-regulation, practice and principle can, and sometimes do, quietly diverge. While there are no production quotas on interactive video, a clause already in the 1989 directive allows any member state to "lay down more detailed or stricter rules in particular on the basis of language criteria." Apply this clause to new technologies - to video-on-demand or to the rapidly blurring boundary between (unregulated) personal communications and (regulated) video entertainment - and all sorts of interesting things happen. Most of them are outrageous, absurd or both.

What does a quota apply to in an individualised, demand-driven system? Everything in the database? (Even if some of it is never viewed?) Or each individual's viewing patterns? Even long-suffering Euro-consumers might start to complain if they are denied a film from their new video-on-demand system because they have already exceeded the week's quota of foreign films. And it does not take video-on-demand, the development of which is still some years off, to make regulations look silly. One reason driving France to embark on its "cultural offensive" is its fear of being outflanked by the growth of European TV - from just over 100 channels now to probably 500 by the end of the century. But many of those channels will be delivered by direct broadcast satellite, whose reception footprint is confined by the laws of physics rather than national boundaries. So will the French take defence of their language to the point of jamming German-language stations broadcast from shared satellites? Now that really would assist European unity.

The enforcement of cultural quotas on the explosive growth of new technologies could only succeed through authoritarian supervision - "thought police" tuned to every satellite dish, monitoring every signal plucked from the air or whizzed down an optic fibre. Technically, the authorities might be able to control every European-based programme-provider. But could they really monitor all transmissions from outside, even if they wanted to? And do they want to? While defence of culture is politically popular in Europe for now - even the French might pause when they realise that the staunch defence of European values in the face of changing technology also requires monitoring and censorship on a scale now only practised in North Korea.

It is unlikely to come to that. Talk of a compromise, driven by economic self-interest rather than cultural chauvinism, is already circulating through the corridors of Brussels. In the Gatt negotiations of 1993, Jack Valenti, the short-but-strident voice of the American film industry, was breathing fire against Europe. Now he preaches reconciliation: "The way to the future is co-operation, not controversy nor a collision with reality. The American movie-TV community wants to reach out to its European colleagues in a spirit of co-operation."

What that means is that Hollywood will provide the Europeans with help in making films that more Americans (and Europeans) want to watch: better dubbing techniques, help with script-writing, marketing expertise, and maybe better access to American-controlled distribution networks both in the US and Europe. At the same time, American media companies are investing in Europe, even in France - witness the recent decision by Time Warner to enter into a co-production agreement with state-owned France Television.

So, at the end of the day, will all the quotas and cultural arm-twisting have been worth it? The French are likely to declare victory no matter what happens. But it will at best be a hollow one. A nation's soul cannot be manufactured by regulatory fiat. And a nation's culture, the expression of its soul, cannot be preserved in a regulatory museum; it must continually evolve. There will always be subsidies for the arts, from state-support for opera in Britain to tax incentives for film production in Ireland. But to set quotas is to stifle the conversations and the evolution which keeps culture alive. French TV soaps with their guaranteed market share are no better than American ones, while good French pop groups (some do exist!) like Les Negresses Vertes don't need any state-guaranteed FM airtime.

The irony is that if any culture can be said to be under threat from foreign ideas, it certainly isn't France's. The French language will no more weaken just because it incorporates le weekend than English has been weakened by using words like sangfroid; nor will French cuisine disappear because there is a McDonald's in every town. (Quite the contrary.)

What is at risk in the arguments over culture, however, is France's - and indeed Europe's - stake in the future. Any culture or nation that does not come to grips with the technologies changing our lives is, quite literally, living in the past. While the French argue over the culture of communications, they inevitably discourage investment. For who is going to invest in building an "information superhighway" if they do not know what traffic it will be allowed to carry? Europe is already behind in joining the new technological world. One of the key steps, the full liberalisation of telecommunications, has been allowed to wait until 1998. If Europe falls further behind on that highway it will no longer have to worry about its cultures, for it will have put them all in a museum. As Molière once said: "Most people die of their remedies, and not their illnesses."

John Andrews (100427.3036@compuserve.com) is The Economist's correspondent in Brussels.