French Kiss-Off

How protectionism has hurt French films

American movies account for 80 percent of European box office receipts, although European movies have won only 5 percent of the American market. Of the 100 highest-grossing movies in the world last year, 88 were American, and seven more were co-productions involving American producers. After aircraft production, the entertainment industry is America's largest source of trade surplus.

Most European nations, having concluded that their native producers face an uphill struggle, now subsidize filmmaking, and many, like France and Spain, place quotas on the importation of foreign films. Such Latin American nations as Brazil and Mexico mix subsidies and import quotas to hold off American market dominance.

But it is France, where American movies hold nearly 60 percent of the market, that provides the most revealing case of cultural protectionism. France has not only built a bureaucratic barrier against American culture, it has constructed a notorious intellectual case against it as well. The French spend hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing film production, extend interest-free loans to designated filmmakers, and have placed quotas not only on imports but on television time.

The European Community requires all TV channels to carry at least 50 percent European programming. France has upped this total to 60 percent for European programs, with at least 40 percent of the total devoted by law to native French programs. The French government even enforces a separate quota for prime-time shows to ensure that French programs are not shunted into the least favorable hours.

France's commitment to film protectionism became an international issue in the spring of 1994, during the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) talks. The world's leading trading nations negotiated widespread tariff reductions on goods and services, usually on a quid-pro-quo basis. American negotiators promised to remove many trade barriers against European goods, but they asked in return that the Europeans--especially the French--extend impartial treatment to American movies and remove the special taxes and quotas.

The French refused. Indeed, keeping out American films became one of the most important French national policies. The well-known director Claude Berri (Jean de Florette) reflected a popular attitude when he warned that "if the GATT deal goes through as proposed, European culture is finished." The French government even promised to veto any GATT agreement that did not preserve its protectionist policies toward film. French officials condemned Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park as a "threat to [French] national identity." Despite the protestations of Hollywood, the Americans backed down and acceded to the wishes of the French government. After the French won the GATT battle, French director Jean Jacques claimed, "We removed the threat that European culture would be completely eliminated."

The "low" quality of many American films, and of much American popular culture, induces many art lovers to support cultural protectionism. Few people wish to see the cultural diversity of the world disappear under a wave of American market dominance. When the French try to protect their native productions, even cultured Americans are tempted to applaud.

But contrary to popular opinion, cultural protectionism does not further cultural diversity. Protected artifacts often lose their artistic and competitive vitality. Protection actually decreases an industry's chance of competing successfully in world markets.

Real cultural diversity results from the interchange of ideas, products, and influences, not from the insular development of a single national style. The years since the GATT treaty was concluded have been no exception in the case of French films, which may be less competitive today than they were before GATT. France's exports to the United States increasingly feature period costume dramas such as La Reine Margot, Ridicule, and Beaumarchais the Scoundrel--films that, because they require a knowledge of French culture and history to be appreciated, are seen by an increasingly specialized audience. Such films reflect one aspect of the nationalistic cultural insularity that results from market protectionism.

France's great cinematic tradition notwithstanding, the French audience for films had been shrinking before GATT. In the decade preceding the agreement, yearly movie attendance fell from 183 million to 120 million. Although as recently as 1986 French films outperformed American films in the French market, the American share of that market has continued to grow despite intense protective measures.

Eric Rohmer, the French director of such popular art house comedies as My Night at Maud's and Claire's Knee, believes the French should fight back with high-quality movies. Rohmer perceives Hollywood as a danger, but he is not a cultural protectionist. As he told The New York Times, "I say to people, `I am a commercial film maker'....I am not supported by the state; I am for free competition."

But Rohmer's is a lonely voice. French movie subsidies are financed with a tax on movie tickets and videocassettes. Encouraging moviegoing is obviously not on the agenda of the protectionists. The real debate over cinematic protectionism revolves around who will determine which movies are financed: moviegoers or the state. Unfortunately for French culture, the state has been winning.

Flashback

Film protectionists frequently claim that French moviemakers cannot compete with Hollywood, even in their home market. While it is true that the French-speaking market is smaller than the English-speaking market, the historical fact is that French filmmakers have competed quite successfully with their English-speaking counterparts. Indeed, France contributed more to the early history of cinema than any other nation.

Louis and Auguste Lumière, the first men to project films for a paying audience, pioneered the early development of the movie industry in the 1890s and enjoyed global success with their appealing documentary footage. Their contemporary Georges Méliès was the world's most popular maker of short imaginative films, inventing an array of special effects and establishing a worldwide following.

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