Alberto Mingardi  

Does French 'exception culturelle' produce exceptional culture?

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Is television the new agriculture? Upon strong pressure on the part of the French, the "audiovisual" industry will be kept out of the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) negotiations. Simon Kuper had an interesting article on the FT, providing a reasonable defense of French "exception culturelle".

The exception culturelle hasn't blocked American cultural products. Nor does it aim to. A recent official French report rightly says the policy doesn't express "a defensive conception of culture".
Rather, the French exception should be understood more positively: as safeguarding a niche for some French cultural products. France accepts that most global movies and TV shows will be in English. The exception culturelle simply aims to make sure that French culture gets funding, too. The invisible hand of the market won't do that.

The argument sounds sensible. Hollywood competition makes French (and, at large, European) cultural products basically niche products. The globalized world speaks English and that so to say "reinforces" American dominance. As more resources flow to Hollywood as a result of its stronghold over a wider and wider potential market, the French movie industry is the Asterix village to the Roman empire of movies. Shouldn't they be helped a little bit?

There are a variety of issues that the "exception culturelle" argument calls into question. For example, one may wonder if it is "fair" to tax smartphones and tablets to finance arts - a policy that entails a form of redistribution from the young to the old. But first and foremost, I have two problems with exception culturelle.

First, if something should have a truly transnational dimension, that is culture. That was certainly true before the emergence of nation states - the "res publica litteratorum" was a virtual space, unimpeded by national borders. But to a certain extent it is true nowadays, too. Culture provides for bridges among people. This applies to high culture, and to pop culture too. Does this mean that we are all more "Americanized" than in the past? Certainly American pop icons are highly successful. But is this endangering our identities? If French and American teenagers do "speak Twilight" to each other, is this in any sense "diminishing" for the first? This argument seems to imply that, absent American TV series, a French teen ager would spend her days listening to Debussy or watching Ionesco's plays. Admittedly, a rather bold assumption.

Second, can we really assume that subsidizing cultural products that could not find enough customers to repay their cost does not affect the very way in which cultural products are produced? If a movie sails the sea of the market, it is customers that decree its success. Technological progress and change in the distribution system are shaking the certanties of publishers, music giants, and film producers everywhere. That is to say, the variables of success are not, nowadays, easily mastered by anyone. Subsides do not guarantee us quality products, but they allow producers to be spared at least some of this swirly change. Would that help in fostering an environment that allows for newer ideas to flourish, as we expect from high culture? Or will it create just a sort of dependency from subsidies? In short, is that a sensible long-term policy, for the sake of protecting the niche of French cultural product?


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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture



COMMENTS (12 to date)
Brandon writes:

Great post! A French-American sociologist working in the Silicon Valley wrote about this very subject in the Independent Review a couple of years ago: Can Protectionism Ever Be Respectable?.

François writes:

can you imagine the reaction of the american public if their tv screen show 70% french series or movies ? idem for the radio ?
France don't block the US productions; the law want a minimum of european production.
For the movies, a tax for all the entries pay the subventions for the french cinema. No limit for the US productions
The french teenagers can see a great diversity of movies or movies; they know that the world is multicultural and travel or work in a foreign contry without problems.
I am not convince that the american teenagers are so curious about the world.
In my multi-national firm (not french) the american have the reputation to be hard to move in a other country.
I think that US and french have the same proportion of bad and good productions.

Sorry for my bad english

Tom West writes:

It's interesting to note that in a global marketplace, having a large population that refuses to accept culturally different products, and even more importantly, rejects imports in a different language gives you a strong competitive edge.

Meanwhile, while American culture creates many thoughtful products, I suspect what succeeds internationally tend to be the equivalent of McDonalds and Cheetos, with a careful mix of the cultural equivalent of sugar, salt and fat.

Government subsidies may not be simply about protecting one's own culture, but making certain that your cultural equivalent of fresh vegetables is at least available to the rank and file (the rich will always be able to afford their vegetables).

Nicholas Weininger writes:

What world is this person living in where the global marketplace drives out niche products or denies them funding? Has he never heard of the Long Tail? Or, for that matter, of the Internet? We live in the golden age of niche cultural production.

Dan Carroll writes:

The economic argument for these subsidies is that of an externality. Since movies and the arts are a means to educate and socialize the young (as well as the old), the loss of such publications could mean a generational loss of cultural uniqueness. Since it is a desire of every generation to pass on their values to the next, even if the next rejects those values in part, it is natural to lament their loss. Are those values worth protecting and preserving? That is a different question, and I suspect the answer is mixed - all cultures have their strengths and weaknesses, values that are worth preserving and values that should be rejected.

The problem with the externality argument is whether the powers to be are or should be in a position to decide what gets preserved and what gets rejected. It is likely that the process of subsidization will get corrupted and fail to achieve its goal of preserving worthwhile culture, instead cultivating a culture of rent seeking.

Jon T writes:

I am French, but have to underline how sadly typical this is of my country’s culture of entitlement. France’s “elites” seem to entertain the idea that French culture is somehow ‘superior’ to others, and particularly American culture. Behind the excuse of ‘preserving French cinema/TV’ looms the very xenophobic and paternalistic notion that (1) anything coming from foreigners is bound to be worthless, and (2) stupid commoners will however always choose foreign products, and have to be guided by the benevolent intelligentsia.
But let’s talk facts. First of all, the arrogance displayed in this defence of the ‘exception’ is staggering; “were it not for French public money, ‘The Artist’ could not have been made”….? Well news flash: The Artist wasn’t good. As a matter of fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name a single good film produced through a national funding scheme. And this includes small flicks with budgets below a million bucks. French cinema is decadent, and at the very best average for the size of the country (dynamism and innovation is in Asia these days, while the US is a dominant force, as ever, for entertainment as well as art films). French literature is far from endearing these days. I won’t even speak about French music or TV out of pity.
And my second point: non-French people who are not very familiar with the topic could see the ‘cultural exception’ as a benign government program, similar to the National Endowment for the Arts in the US. It is far from the truth. I would whole-heartedly support an organization that would inject 100 million euros or so a year into small, art-house productions, or non-commercial music. On the contrary, the ‘cultural exception’ conceit allows big bureaucracies such as the CNC (National Center for Cinematography) to divert billions in taxpayer money and finance big-time productions, trying to conjure a ‘French Hollywood’, while of course producing cheap knock-offs and stupid comedies (an unfortunate tradition). French TV viewers also have the Exception to thank for the quota system, that exposes them to a steady flow of terrible national productions. Who would want to watch world-class works of art like Mad Men when France 2 will show you old re-runs of “l’instit” instead.
Long story short, Barroso was 100% right about reactionary views in France, he has my full support (and why on hell did anybody listen to what the French government think and cave?!).

Jonathan T writes:

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PrometheeFeu writes:

@François:

Americans might indeed be quite upset if their TV screens showed 70% French movies, but that is simply because they don't want to see all those French movies. This fact is also why we don't see 70% French movies on US TV screens. The reason why almost all movies shown in France are from the US is because that is what the viewers want to see. It is incredibly paternalistic for the French government to force its population to pay for something they don't want.

guthrie writes:

What Jon T said except for one quibble...

I thought 'The Artist' was good.

Regardless of taste, however, a single film is not adequate endorsement of any particular subsidy or quota scheme.

Daublin writes:

Real culture, the stuff that you want to maintain, is embodied in the daily life of the common person. It's in the way people speak, the memes they carry, the holidays they celebrate, the way they celebrate them, and their initial attitudes when they meet new people in various circumstances.

I don't see how government programs can do a very good job of maintaining the good parts. At best what they can do is promote the high culture of past decades. It's high culture, not low culture, because government elites are not in a place to even understand the culture, much less support it. It's decades old, because it takes time for any idea to wind its way thorugh a large bureaucracy.

The more realistic outcome is that the government can prop up aspects of culture that otherwise would have died. It can make people speak an old language, and it can make people learn about dry and dusty old artistic works. That's not the parts of a culture that you want to promote, however. That's just a museum.

People shouldn't be made to live in museums. There's more to France than endlessly celebrating a whitewashed version of the past.

MingoV writes:

Much of the art funded by the NEA is bad. If France's equivalent of the NEA has art and "culture" of equal quality, then the French tax payers should be protesting.

Tom West writes:

My observation is that a people who feel they have lost their own culture fail to prosper.

This is not something I think most Americans understand, but if everything of cultural relevance to you is imported from the US, then there tends to be a malaise which as far as I can tell is based on the idea that your entire people are essentially irrelevant.

Doomed at best to be a second-rate copy of the dominant culture ("everything of importance to us is American, but we can never *be* American"), it's easy to either choose simple materialism/hedonism or develop a brooding resentment.

In either case, the outcome doesn't bode well for the society. Small wonder that countries attempt to maintain enough cultural difference to allow their citizenry to take pride in their history and culture.

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