One small village of indomitable Gauls holds out

Asterix fought merrily against the Roman invader. Now he has been enlisted to help repel the Americans.
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Asterix is brewing up the magic potion again, and this time he is setting forth to repel the American invader. The French cinema industry had a bad year in 1998, despite a rise in attendances to 170 million. The depressing fact for the national industry is that, of this rising audience, fewer than 30 per cent paid to see French films, and the vast majority of those voted for just three comedies: Diner de cons, Taxi and the sequel to The Visitors. Otherwise, what France enjoys is what the rest of the world enjoys: Titanic, Mulan, Zorro and Godzilla.

The French press has not been reacting to the news with sang-froid. The country considers itself, in this field as in others, the chief bastion of European culture against the American invasion. It has the largest and best-subsidised film industry on the Continent, and has fought consistently for legislation in the EU to protect local products against imports. The argument is that the US enjoys a vast internal market, united by culture and language, which gives it a base for its dominance in the world. By contrast, none of the countries of Europe has a national market large enough to sustain an industry that can compete with Hollywood, so they must find some way of creating a protected European market, or else lose a cinema that represents its diverse national cultures.

What of the future? The forthcoming French blockbuster, due next month, is Asterix et Obelix contre Cesar. At pounds 30 million, it is the most expensive French film ever, a live-action version of the Asterix strip cartoons of Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, starring Gerard Depardieu as the Gaulish menhir delivery man, Obelix. As you may remember, Asterix is the chief warrior of a little village in Gaul that has held out against conquest by Rome, and does so thanks to a magic potion supplied by the druid "Getafix" (as he is known in the often inspired English translations by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge).

When Asterix first appeared, 40 years ago, the series was quickly seen as a reflection of President de Gaulle's determination to resist "Anglo- American" influences in France. Asterix has also lent his name to a theme park outside Paris, a gentler version of Disneyland, with an emphasis on French history and literature - sword fights with the Three Musketeers, film shows of French cabaret, restaurants with national themes. It is therefore perfectly appropriate that the Asterix film, with a cast headed by the prodigious Depardieu, should be leading the latest round in the battle against the forces of Disney, McDonalds and Coca-Cola. As Figaro put it: "In a few weeks' time we will know whether Asterix will be able to hold off the American legions."

Good luck to him. However, it will take more than one film to stem the tide. Agreements have recently been reached to help bring television money into cinema production; in the future, television companies such as Canal Plus can show new films to subscribers a year after release, in exchange for devoting a percentage of its budget to co-productions of French and European films.

Part of Hollywood's success has always been vertical integration - the ability of the major companies to control production, distribution and exhibition. This is why the French industry sees the multiplex as another battleground, though here the arguments are less clear-cut: the decline in attendances at art houses is not due to competition from other types of cinema. This has not stopped the local authorities in Lyons from resisting the introduction of multiplexes, and the mayor of one commune denouncing them as being driven solely by the profit motive and consequently a serious threat to the cinematographic and cultural life of the area.

From this side of the Channel, it may all seem like another bureaucratic attempt to dictate what audiences ought to enjoy. We do not feel so threatened by Hollywood (it speaks our language, after all), and the majority of people feel uncomfortable with subsidies, or anything that interferes with market forces. The British press regularly has a chuckle at the expense of the French Academy, in its efforts to stop French citizens saying "Hovercraft" rather than aeroglisseur, and using other Franglish neologisms. But French government subsidies, which never exceed 15 per cent of the budget of a film, as part of a determined cultural policy, have succeeded in preserving Europe's only varied and thriving cinema industry capable of producing a range of films from fine art-house movies to popular comedies and thrillers. We should at least look with sympathy on its efforts, unless we want "European" cinema to refer to nothing more than a regional market for films promoting hamburgers and children's toys. Allez, Asterix!