May 13, 2013 6:34 pm

France defends cultural barricades in digital era

The onrushing digital tide threatens to wash it away; looming talks on a new trade accord between the EU and the US could blow holes in it. But the determination in Paris to defend l’exception culturelle is unyielding.

If any doubts about this lingered in Brussels or Washington, they were dispelled on Monday by a 500-page report commissioned by President François Hollande that in no uncertain terms reiterated France’s attachment to policies that protect its art, its big film industry, its music industry – and, not least, its fledgling internet players.

The most eye-catching of its 80 recommendations was a proposal, quickly backed by the socialist government, to tax the sale of smartphones, tablets and other internet-connected devices to help fund French movies and other cultural activities.

But the broader mandate of the report was to produce a plan for how to extend and entrench into the digital age a policy that dates back to the 1960s when Paris began actively to support French culture against the rising dominance of American – English-language – products.

The domination of the internet by a few global players “constitutes an immense threat to cultural diversity”, said the report, entitled “Culture: Act Two”.

Pierre Lescure, the former Canal Plus television chief who headed drawing up the report, added in his introduction: “The determined adaptation of the French cultural exception in the face of digital usage is, as someone said, a burning obligation”.

Mr Hollande has already stated that France will only agree to proposed talks between the EU and the US on a new trade settlement on condition that the cultural exception is excluded.

“Big international players, who avoid French regulation and don’t give much importance to cultural diversity, are acquiring growing power. With a few exceptions, French actors rarely manage to impose their services in the new channels,” the report said.

“The coming trade negotiations must not be the occasion to put [the cultural exception] in question,” it added. “Audio-visual services must remain excluded, in an absolute and unconditional way, from any liberalisation. Audio-visual services that use digital tools must benefit from the same protective rules as traditional audio-visual services.”

L’exception culturelle was entrenched in the 1980s under President François Mitterrand, Mr Hollande’s socialist predecessor and mentor. It has broad support across the French political spectrum. As Mr Lescure pointed out, France relies on the continuation of its ability to protect its culture on provisions in the World Trade Organisation and Unesco, the Paris-based UN cultural organisation – which France insists are also in the interests of other minority cultures.

It is based on a series of financial supports and regulations, including quotas. France’s 200-movie per year film industry is subsidised to the tune of about €1bn a year by levies on television companies, telecom operators and cinemas. There are broadcasting quotas to protect French-language music.

The state is involved in a raft of other financing and funding schemes for a broad variety of the arts and, increasingly, seeks to support its vibrant gaming sector and other internet-based businesses. Earlier this month, Arnaud Montebourg, the industry minister, opposed the mooted sale to Yahoo of a majority stake in Dailymotion, a video-sharing website, which the state had helped finance through its Strategic Investment Fund.

The problem in the digital age is that big players like Google, with its YouTube video service, Skype, the online telephone service, and Amazon, the online retailer, can swerve around locally based operators, delivering products that are not subject to local regulation or taxation and eroding the effects of policies aimed to protect French producers.

Mr Lescure confronted this by proposing a mixture of measures that included some easing of regulation, such as dismantling a strict French regime aimed at illegal downloaders, as well as his tax recommendation.

He rejected as legally doubtful pressure from the newspaper and music industries to impose revenue sharing on Google. But he said the EU should allow member states to levy reduced value added tax rates on digital books to help local language publishers and authors.

“Far from being an instrument of economic protectionism or the expression of a defensive conception of culture, the cultural exception enables the possibility, for states, to support their creators, to promote cultural diversity and regulate cultural supply, including in its digital form,” the report said.

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