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.


Anonymous said...

There are no restrictions on American films in French movie theaters. The 'exception culturelle' involves European origin quotas in television programming - as mandated by the 1989 Télévision sans frontières directive - and the tax on movie tickets to subsidize French movie production. Both are entirely legal under WTO rules and there is no good reason for the EU to agree to change that, which is what the US wants to do. No one is trying to "protect" anyone from American movies or prevent people from deciding "what they like". Movies are not commodities like cars and washing machines and have no place in international trade agreements, except to be specifically exempted from them.


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bert said...

There was a quota imposed a few years ago, requiring radio stations to play French-language songs. It led to an increase in French rap, very little of which involved accordions. Be careful what you wish for.

Passerby said...

@bert: beside promoting rap (Skyrock transitioning from airing Nirvana & Metallica to "numéro 1 sur le rap" !), it also led to less diversity for French artists.

I recall an interview of Jean-Louis Murat, saying that his air-time decreased significantly after the quotas were implemented. He claimed that radio stations started to play more often the same trendy songs to meet the quotas.

Boris said...

Yes culture and industry are intermingled (in various proportion depending on each work/product), but I think you oversimplify the problem.
Re Blum-Byrnes : http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accord_Blum-Byrnes

The fact is that the competition between US and French movies is very asymetrical i.e. unfair. The sheer volume and audience of US made films give them an unmatchable financial power (and promotion that goes with it). On the other side, distributing French films in the US meets the resistance of US audiences to anything foreign, in another language. Thus an evolution of certain French directors to make movies specifically targeted at US audiences (e.g. the Artist) in order to have access to that market.
Without some kind of system to bring back some fair competition, French cinema would be dead long ago.
Same thing applies to music.
Now it is not of course without side effects, some of it clearly negative. But that is not to say you should let free market reign.
And if you think the US is a really open market, then you're being naive. For instance, it is very difficult for foreign artists to work in the US and red tape can be worse than for the reverse.

bernard said...

Unless my memory fails me, it is a fact that foreign movies shown in US movie theaters must be shown in original version, which can be subtitled. Which is perfectly fine for me and University towns with large foreign language departments, but possibly less so in towns such as, say, Omaha. In the language of trade negotiations, we call this a non-tarrif barrier.

It is also a fact that several movie industries in Europe have collapsed over the past 30 years, surely unintended casualties of the full opening of their industries to the full financial might of Hollywood produced movies (hey I like Hollywood myself!). I am thinking for instance the collapse of the Russian movie industry, of the Italian film industry, the near collapse of the German film industry.

So sure, people should be allowed to choose what cultural products they consume but, like Michelle O might say, if you give a kid the choice between French fries and a salad, the kid will automatically direct his attention to the French fries because they have a higher addictive power. And, make no mistake, the reality is that the majority of movie goers are, you guessed it, kids. And they should be exposed to cultural diversity at all costs.

Anonymous said...

Bernard, there is no law or rule in the US about subtitling movies. There mere idea that such a regulation could exist is risible. Foreign movies are subtitled because there is no dubbing industry in the US. Dubbing movies or television programming requires not only sophisticated equipment but large numbers of actors to do the voice overs. Dubbing is a major operation, meaning that it has pay off economically (and which is the case in only a handful of countries, notably France, Germany, Italy, and Spain). As America is a culturally closed market for movies, the economy of scale for dubbing simply isn't there. There have been a few attempts to dub foreign movies into English over the years but they always ended in fiasco: the dubbing was terrible, audiences weren't interested, and highbrow American movie-goers refused to see them.


Alex said...

It led to an increase in French rap, very little of which involved accordions. Be careful what you wish for.

I think there is a strong case that this is success. Rather than creating a sheltered sector turning out backwards-looking kitsch for ageing white kékés, it created something new that expressed the lives and concerns of an underreported France.

Not just the rappers, either. The post-quota era gave us Daft Punk, the Kitsune and Ed Banger Records crowd, and the French house scene. The pre-quota era? Eurovision/stars en folie dreck like Hallyday.