Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Shades of Blum-Byrnes

France, according to Le Monde, is leading a European charge to limit the extent to which American "cultural products" can invade the European market. To put it this way is perhaps misleading, since the basis of the French position, understandably enough, is that "culture" is not a "product" in the sense that other tradeable goods are. It is not "merchandise." Rather, it is "culture," and if you don't know what culture is when you see it, well, then you're a philistine.

The problem with this is that the French are being disingenuous. When they use the word "culture," they would like you think of paintings in the Louvre, the Fauré Requiem, or the novels of Proust, but their trade negotiators are all about limiting the number of American films that can be shown in French movie theaters and the number of American TV dramas and sitcoms that can be shown on the small screen. These things are not the fruit of individual creators but, indeed, the "products" of "the cultural industries" (to borrow from the title of Frédéric Martel's popular Sunday radio show on France Culture). Large sums of money are involved, as are substantial capital investments and desirable jobs.

The French position on this goes back to the post-World War II years and the famous Blum-Byrnes agreement, negotiated by Léon Blum and James Byrnes. The two countries agreed at the time to limit imports of American films, and quotas have waxed and waned ever since. At the time of the original accord, there were some regrettable attacks on American philistinism by such prominent French intellectuals as Étienne Gilson. Since then, however, the French have amply demonstrated that they are as capable of producing cultural schlock as any American philistine, and when there is money to be made, they are just as avid to make it.

Anyone who watches French TV or goes to the movies is aware that whatever "cultural exception" has existed since World War II has not done much to ward off American influences on French popular culture. Whether one deplores or applauds those influences (and I personally think neither deprecation nor applause is warranted), a trade negotiation is not a good place to stop it. In such a venue, money is what counts, not culture.

Perhaps as a cultural mongrel myself, capable of appreciating both high and low, domestic and foreign, I simply don't evaluate the stakes as the self-appointed defenders of European culture do. I say, let people decide what they like. I may often not approve of other people's choices, but I don't think that taste can be improved by imposing quotas, any more that it can be legislated or enforced by curricular edict. I do know that part of my love of France came from watching some fairly low-brow French films. I would have lost something if my government had tried to "protect" me from them. But American governments have never been much interested in that kind of protection (as opposed to prophylactic censorship of supposed sexual immorality). The mask of antiphilistinism is more commonly worn in Europe, but those who wear it are less concerned with the culture of the masses than they are with the profits to be made from them.

The Right Way and the Wrong Way

In an article devoted mainly to Ségolène Royal's wave-making at the Public Investment Bank, we read this:

Mais, en dépit des dénégations, la polémique au sommet de la BPI illustre de vraies divergences sur le bon usage des deniers publics. Des divergences que l'on retrouve au sein de Bercy, entre le ministre des finances, Pierre Moscovici, et le ministre du redressement productif, Arnaud Montebourg. Tandis que le premier veut orienter la BPI vers le soutien aux filières d'avenir, en l'éloignant du rôle de "pompier", le second fait du sauvetage et de la restructuration de filières industrielles emblématiques une priorité.
Moscovici is so right about this, and Montebourg so wrong, that it's easy to imagine why the two are constantly at loggerheads. I've written often about France's need to shift capital from declining sectors with overcapacity into rising sectors where new businesses are starved for startup funds. The role of the BPI (with its strictly limited capital) should be to supply them.

As for Mme Royal's sudden return to the front pages (two days running in Le Monde), she seems to have timed her move carefully. After the contretemps with the president's new companion last year, Royal largely stayed out of the public eye and gave Hollande room to be Hollande. Now she is prodding him from the left, where he needs to be prodded. Her influence is probably negligible, but the press is still interested in what she has to say, so perhaps she can accomplish something. Now that her call for a "restructuring" of Bercy has been echoed by Fabius, perhaps not coincidentally, one sees how a well-placed remark by an outsider can be amplified by an insider. This may not be the best way to conduct an internal policy debate, but anything that furthers such debate within the majority is to be encouraged. Two cheers for Royal.