The cultural exception is a fundamental principle of French public policy, to the extent that to criticise it will result in a torrent of criticism, if not derision. Lobbies will move against you, doors will close and your attempt to shift the debate will have stalled, as much as an argument to privatise the National Health Service in the UK or abolish the second amendment in the US would.
Behind this quasi-philosophical term lies a series of policies that provide protectionist measures for media and cultural undertakings against foreign competition, whether it is the acquisition of French television channels by US broadcasters, or the heavy subsidies paid to French film producers. Given the current threats to the model in which the French place so much trust (and a considerable mount of taxpayers’ money), how has the Socialist government fared in its goal to make the French even more cultured?
Last year, in a similar forum, Culture Minister Aurelie Flipetti, set out what she considered to be her priorities in restoring cultural policy to the rank of national priorities. For an industry that employs more people in France than the whole agriculture sector, and has enormous clout in terms of lobbying, this is perhaps easier than it sounds.
Amongst the challenges of ensuring that tax breaks for film producers are maintained, something that, she said, the departure of Jerome Cahuzac had greatly facilitated, and restoring a level of independence to public broadcasters, the wholesale reform (some would say liberalisation) of the broadcasting industry, which she mooted last year, has yet to happen. Even so, the continued mutation of television broadcasting and the Internet technologies which might one day replace it, have no ceased. Instead, much effort has been expended on a completely unforeseen threat to the cultural exception, from across the Atlantic.
The Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement was announced, rather out of the blue, by Barack Obama in his state of the union speech in January 2013. Since then, a massive scramble to frame the negotiations has taken place in Washington and Brussels. Charged with negotiating the deal on behalf of member states, the European Commission initially wanted to include broadcasting and entertainment in the deal, fearful that keeping it out would allow the US to maintain protectionist measures in procurement or transport.
After fierce lobbying, even threatening to blow up the whole deal, France, largely in the minority on the issue, managed to ensure that no subjects that would threaten the cultural exception model, would form part of the areas liberalised by the TAFTA. Filippetti was widely raised for her own effective lobbying, and was visibly basking in the success.
Similarly, questions by the Commission over the monopolies held by collective rights societies, which collect and distribute authors’, performers’, musicians’ and producers’ royalties, often at great expense whilst providing questionable added value, have been smacked down firmly by the French, who would prefer to see the role of such societies extended. The Commission would rather authors and other rights holders were able to deal directly in their work, something the French government sees as diluting the value of the work itself, as prices would no longer be set by a rigid scale, but instead by the market.
However, with those brushfires quelled, other issues await Filipetti’s attention. By far the most complex issue, and something that is clearly causing great concern to Filipetti, is how to ensure that Amazon, Google and Facebook pay their fair share in tax.
Measures being suggested include banning Amazon from being able to avoid charging consumers for delivery of books (under French law they must apply the same sales price on the book, but they effectively subsidise delivery), or taxing Google or Facebook for their use of consumers’ personal data. There appears to be little consensus over the solution, but a general diagnostic is agreed upon that for too long the international tax system has bred companies (particularly those providing intangible products such as entertainment) who can easily flout the rules established for a tangible world.
That the internet is full of US companies out to screw the little french entrepreneur is an almost irresistible piece of dogma, which unfortunately now underpins the economic justification for the cultural exception. However, whether it produces better quality cultural products at an affordable cost is not clear, nor is it a question that seems to be able to be asked openly. After one year in the job, the cultural orthodoxy within the Ministry of Culture seems as strong as ever. Given Filipetti’s obvious grasp of the issues, and interest last year in breaking some of the molds, this is disappointing. Perhaps with fewer distractions this coming year, some much-needed change might come to this area of public policy.