French store takes on the culture fascists

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FNAC, France's favourite one-stop culture shop, has made an unprecedented incursion into politics. The unconventional books, records and electrical goods store - an icon of cultural consumerism across the Channel for 30 years - has launched a campaign against the growing number of political attacks on multi-culturalism in France.

Without naming the National Front, FNAC has taken up the cudgels against Jean-Marie Le Pen's ultra-nationalist party and other right-wing politicians influenced by the NF's policy of demeaning and if possible suppressing artistic events which are not wholly "French". In retaliation, the National Front's de facto Number Two, Bruno Megret, called last week on his members to boycott all 50 FNAC stores.

At the same time, an NF publication attacked the chain store as "one of the principal polluters of French youth". Since a boycott would be likely to bring extra business to FNAC's foreign-owned competitors, including Britain's Virgin Megastores, this was an odd declaration from a party which vociferously promotes "France first". The National Front has, however, seldom been troubled by coherence.

As the first action of its campaign, FNAC (turnover pounds 1.2bn) will replace the funding stripped from a theatre group in Lyons for a Third World musical spectacular - De Lorient a Pondichery - which features children performing in six languages. A pounds 50,000 regional subsidy to the theatre company, Image Aige, was abolished in May, soon after the NF made a deal to keep local centre-right politicians in control of the Rhone-Alpes regional council. FNAC will replace the cash and promote the play for free when it goes on tour in November. Similar actions will follow.

In an editorial in the house magazine, Contact, distributed to FNAC's 800,000 "members", the company's president, Francois-Henri Pinault, explained why the chain store was "engaging itself and speaking out" in the "unfamiliar world of politics". He wrote: "We are rising against those who wish to smother in the cradle all outbursts of rich, multicultural and well-meaning creativity."

Commercial companies often give money to political parties; sometimes they pronounce on economic issues affecting their business. It is rare, however, for them to engage directly in moral-political issues. FNAC is different, said the store's director of communications, Jacques Margules. "We take the view that anything which promotes the broadest possible cultural and commercial choices for our customers must be in our own long-term interests. That applies as much to political attempts to limit cultural choices as any other form of limits."

Mr Margules made a linguistic distinction. FNAC was venturing into le politique (politics in the broadest, most philosophical sense) not la politique (the grubby world of day-to-day politics). "FNAC is not a political party, and we will not get involved in party politics. But we will defend what we believe in, our own interests and those of our customers."

Mr Megret - the rising power in the NF and one of the leading protagonists of its cultural policies - fulminated against FNAC's campaign as "absolutely scandalous", saying: "It is clear that National Front members are no longer welcome at FNAC. I believe that they will draw their own conclusions."

It was, in effect, Mr Megret who began the cultural war last October. The small town of Vitrolles, near Marseilles, where his wife Catherine is mayoress, ordered the closure of a bar and night-club called Le Sous- Marin (the submarine) on the grounds that it promoted "degenerate" forms of music. The town hall pronounced hip-hop and rap to be "alien" or "tribal" musical expressions.

The city of Toulon, also NF-controlled, withdrew support for a national theatre company in the city on the grounds that it promoted leftist, anti-French works; the NF towns of Orange and Marignane have forced the removal of books and newspapers they disapprove of from the shelves of public libraries.

A more worrying development, to some, is an outbreak of cultural censorship in the five regional councils in which mainstream, centre-right politicians have clung to power with NF support.

Apart from the cancellation of the grant to De Lorient a Pondichery, there are fears that the Picardy regional council may be about to drop its support for an internationally celebrated music festival in Amiens. The subversive music in question? Jazz.