A weekend by the sea, part four: Culturally speaking

For all intents and purposes, the French Socialist Party invented cultural public policy. Before 1982, the cultural portfolio consisted largely of ensuring that Versailles and other national monuments didn’t crumble too much.  Now the question is how can it be rebuilt following 10 years of hostility by a right wing government towards government funding of the arts and culture.  And if so, what should it look like?

In 1982, recently elected President Francois Mitterrand chose a young rising star within the PS as new Culture Minister. Jack Lang, as controversial as he has always been, was a giant figure who created many of the fixtures of the cultural calendar of France today. Fundamentally however, he created a template for government organisation of cultural life which has led to an explosion in the number of clubs, associations, choirs, orchestras, festivals and all sorts of artistic creation. This policy is not necessarily as expensive as it might seem, but was nevertheless stripped back by UMP led governments between 2002 and 2012.

Filippetti and Cultural Policy

This past weekend at La Rochelle, Culture Minister, Aurelie Filippetti, spoke of what she believed her portfolio was for. She noted that France’s cultural richness was often underestimated economically. Not only did it produce wealth and jobs directly, but it was inextricably linked to the tourism industry (not unimportant in the world’s most visited country). Culture was also part of the French psyche, particularly given the uniquely French desire to share that culture with the world. French cultrual universalism avoids the worst of the nationalism that pervades some other countries’ ideas of culture, and enables the French to celebrate with pride their own cultural heritage without excluding others.

A major part of cultural policy should therefore be, she said, the promotion of “cultural spaces”, be they festivals or fixed sites like theatres and museums.  In particular she wanted to see more touring, by theatrical companies and exhibitions.  This might go some way to stabilizing the many heavily-subsidizer and deserted exhibition halls and museums in the regions that have been built more as local politicians’ vanity projects than real cultural spaces.  The success of the Pompidou’s Metz branch augers well for this type of cultural decentralization.

Paying the Price

Filippetti was also realistic about the means at her ministry’s disposal: she had, she said, neither the financial means, nor the real desire, to commence big construction projects for new cultural sites.  Nor would she rely on reducing entrance fees to boost visitor numbers, a policy she claimed was expensive, and on its own, ineffective.

Philippe Chantpie, head of market research and planning at the Culture Ministry, noted that one reason for the disorganized state of the cultural industries was that there had been great instability in setting policy: Ministers had come and gone every two years on average for the past ten years, and therefore the Ministry needed a Minister who remained in post for a long time (Filippetti nodded at this, perhaps indicating that she sees herself in post for the full five year stretch).

The Future of Broadcasting 

The talk turned toward broadcasting regulation at the end of the conference, particularly in light of the apparent disagreement within the government over how to pay for public television.  President Sarkozy had removed advertising from public television after 8pm throughout prime-time – this was (depending on your political persuasion) either to break the dependence of public television on ratings and improve the quality of prime-time output, or to increase the market power of private broadcasters like TF1 who could charge more for the same space.  The hole in public television’s budget is apparent for next year, and adverts in prime-time could bring in an extra 200 million euros a year (a big part of, but not all that is needed, as Filippetti noted).  Jerome Cahuzac, Budget Minister, mooted bringing ads back as a means of balancing the books.  Filippetti, in an interview shortly after, dismissed this as not the appropriate means.

Filippetti set out in La Rochelle her vision of public television, and it largely involves redefining the target markets for the channels.  France 4 (the BBC Three of French broadcasting) comes under fire in particular: Filippetti said she saw no need for a specific channel for the 18 to 35 year bracket, and was unsure whether a bracket like that could even be targeted effectively by one channel.  France 4 will likely become a dedicated children’s channel.  France 2 and France 3 will also need to work better at differentiating themselves from each other – problematic given that they will still have to chase after daytime audiences to bring in the advertising revenue.  No mention was made however of how to finance this.

Throwing out the Rule Book

There was however wide agreement on one fundamental issue: the rules governing television broadcasting, which date from 1986, are no longer fit for purpose.  Connected television and internet streaming make the TV regulatory model obsolete and it needs to be rethought from the ground up.  Filippetti cited rules, such as the prohibition on broadcasting films on terrestrial TV on Wednesday or Saturday nights (done to protect small cinema chains from the rampages of TV), that restrict consumers’ access to content, as being out-moded.  She also said she was shocked by the “liberalism” of internet campaigners who oppose restrictions on sharing copyrighted content, such as the Pirate Party and their ilk.  She saw no reason why something broadcast on the internet should not benefit from the same protections as on television.

A revolution might be coming in broadcasting: the merger of the telecoms regulator, Arcep, and the broadcasting regulator, CSA.  The “Super-CSA”, on the model of the UK regulator, Ofcom, would be able to regulate both internet providers, internet services, like Google or Apple, and broadcast networks.  To do that however, the from-the-ground-up rethink on broadcasting regulation needs to happen.  The good news is that it need not cost millions. In fact, if a model can be found to tax all content providers in the same way, it might raise money for the cash-strapped government and the French content production industry (instead of license fees paid to government, those who are given a broadcasting frequency pay a quota of their turnover to a fund for film and TV production).

Cinema chains, production companies, TV channels, internet service providers, telecoms companies and internet services are all however extremely effective lobbyists.  The grand plans of Filippetti might seem naive in the face of such special interests.  But she should be applauded for trying.

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One thought on “A weekend by the sea, part four: Culturally speaking

  1. Pingback: The Cultural Hegemony | Your Critical Friend

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