France defends its heritage from 'Rocky III'

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PARIS - When Federico Fellini died, France's television channel TF1 was fulsome in its tributes to the Italian director on its main evening news. The film that TF1 showed immediately after the news programme was Rocky III.

There could have been no better example to back the argument by Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, and Jacques Toubon, the Culture Minister, that the United States dominates the film and television world to the detriment of European culture.

Overshadowed at first by the agriculture dispute in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) negotiations, culture has now become the main headline-grabber. Last week, the Gaullist Mr Balladur held another in a series of meetings with French film-makers to stress how serious he is about protecting an industry that he believes is under threat from foreign domination.

Figures show that foreign films make up only 3 per cent of entries in the US, while US films account for 58.3 per cent in France.

The French film industry is subsidised and supported by the state. The price of every cinema ticket includes a percentage for a support fund to keep the home-grown industry going. This way, every admission to Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park goes some way to producing a new French film.

In September, the release of the latest French epic, Claude Berri's Germinal, based on the novel by Emile Zola about the decline of a 19th-century mining community, was accompanied by claims from the director that he could never have produced such a film without state help.

The essence of the French campaign, backed by a European Parliament resolution last July establishing 'cultural specificity' which became 'cultural exception' in a vote two months later, is that cinema and television productions should continue to benefit from preferential treatment. Otherwise, the argument goes, culture in countries where English is not the mother tongue will simply die.

A French radio station, seeking out an American in Paris who could explain US objections to such a concept, complained to one who said he supported the French position that it could not find a single Paris-based American who did not.

But some do argue that the French campaign is at times strident, turning an otherwise worthy battle into another Franco-American spat. With Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg in the US campaigning against the 'exception', French film-makers, led by Berri, wrote an open letter reminding their US colleagues that their position was based 'on this elementary truth: film is not merchandise'.

Where French productions are weak is in television. Unlike Britain, France has few independent production companies and anything made in France has little chance abroad since it has the added disadvantage of having to be dubbed first. With the occasional honourable exception, however, the few French soaps are weak and unsaleable. Two French series for teenagers, Helene et les Garcons (Helen and the Boys) and Premier Baiser (First Kiss), make the cheapest Australian equivalents look positively slick.

Jean Cluzel, a centrist member of the Senate, said recently that, to work, the 'cultural exception' had to be deserved 'not by a doctrine of refusals (of foreign products) but by the production of exportable French audio-visual programmes'.

French producers argue that this is a vicious circle. Without the export market they do not have the money to make good television; without the money they do not have a hope in the export market.