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carl mortished

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"These advocates of free trade are importing and selling their noxious product and even children are becoming addicted to it." You might hear this sotto voce in the corridors of France's ministry of culture and communication, which has been fighting a battle to scupper the launch of EU-U.S. free trade talks at the G8 summit meeting this weekend. Since the opium wars between Europe and China, weak nations have struggled to keep out bullying foreign traders and the French president, François Hollande, is determined to prevent any treaty that does not acknowledge France's right to protect its culture and media.

France is weak, burdened by high unemployment, a shrinking economy and increasingly isolated in the EU for its failure to introduce economic reforms. Nations that are weak tend to look inwards and adopt nationalist postures; consider the insular outlook of Britain's Europhobic conservatives who insist that the U.K. should "go it alone." The French are demanding that a free trade treaty with America should not affect a swathe of regulations and subsidies that supports French culture in the media. These include financial support for movies and quotas for original French content on television. French broadcasters subsidise the French film industry with levies and obligations to produce original French content, without which the French movie industry, some 200 films annually, would be impossible. Without protection, the French government fears that a regime of free and open access would allow the financial muscle of American media conglomerates to bulldoze their way into French living rooms. The counter-argument, of course, is that Hollywood is already there, its fat bottom sinking into the sofa.

The French government's argument for "l'exception culturelle" starts, like every French argument, from a sweeping ideological assertion which can be found in a report commissioned by President Hollande on the future of state support for culture in France. The report, by Pierre Lescure, makes some controversial recommendations, including a tax on smartphones and other internet-enabled devices and it also reasserts the fundamental argument: "culture is not a commodity . . .the role it plays in the development of individuals and society is too important to allow cultural activity to be entirely subject to market forces."

The simple answer is that culture has never been (and never will be) entirely subject to market forces. It has always been given special favours by the the powerful and the privileged. From the royal patronage accorded Shakespeare's theatre company to the power of government-owned broadcasters in almost every nation outside the U.S., the state has always been a puppeteer, pulling the strings of culture and media. The question is not whether they should be there but whether they pull too many strings or, for that matter, the right ones. The problem in France is that the state has been too aggressive in promoting its own view of culture. Since the 18th century the elites in Paris have been imposing a cultural dominance on the French, from enforced adoption of a version of the French language made in Paris (and the extinction of a multitude of regional dialects) to the state control of broadcasting. The French government seems to believe that cultural imperialism is a problem, it needs to consider which post-imperial power is dominating the French on a daily basis.

If President Hollande wants to defend l'exception culturelle , he should be asking who is the enemy. Denmark, a nation less than a tenth of the size of France produces more successful TV drama exports and in the Danish language, a tongue less widely understood than French. There is no doubt that France, too, can produce brilliant television, such as Engrenages (Spiral), a French cop drama, produced in part with BBC funds, that is in my view better than The Wire . But there should be many more such exports and the reason is not the bullying fist of Hollywood but the dead hand of the French state.

Carl Mortished is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights.

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