France issues call to arms in European `culture wars'

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New battle lines were staked out in Europe's escalating "culture wars" yesterday after France warned the European Union that the continent's heritage could disappear "down the tubes" of American multi-media magnates. Adopting an apocalyptic tone,Jacques Toubon, the French Minister of Culture, appeared before the European Parliament to garner support for television quotas and controls, which France believes are necessary to protect Europe against US "cultural colonialism". The fast-growing market in hi-tech information systems, including CD-ROM and information super-highways, threat ens to engulf the European television and film industry and exploit every European work of art, he told the cultural committee of the parliament.

Opinion is split in Brussels over whether the EU should protect Europe's television industry and culture from media "exploitation". France, which holds the EU presidency, has led the fight for quotas to limit the amount of non-European television programmes shown in EU member states. Yesterday, Mr Toubon sought support for greater control over media promotion of cultural heritage.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, has doubts about cultural protectionism and Washington has warned that the exclusion of US companies from the European media market could damage trade relations. The speed at which new media techniques arebeing developed has added urgency to the debate. This month, Brussels will host a summit on the information super-highway, at the urging of the G7 group of wealthy industrial countries.

The row centres on a French demand for the Commission to tighten a "television without frontiers" directive introduced in 1989, which said at least 50 per cent of programmes should be of European origin. France says the quota has not been enforced and it also wants more investment in European production companies.

The Commission should have drawn up new proposals before a Commission meeting in Brussels next week and a meeting of European culture ministers in Bordeaux in mid-February. But, it has dragged its feet and the dispute widened this week after Jacques Santer, the Commission president, said he was not in favour of quotas.

In Brussels, Hollywood lobbyists are campaigning against the French moves and have urged the Commission to abolish quotas. Many EU Commission chiefs dismiss the French campaign as an attempt to dictate cultural taste.

The European Parliament mostly backs Mr Toubon. "Its all about big bucks - there is no free choice about what you see on television today," Carole Tongue, the British Socialist MEP, said. "If you are brought up eating hamburgers, how would you ever know what an avocado tastes like?" she asked.

Mr Toubon said yesterday that France would veto any attempt to scrap the quota system. Many observers in Brussels predict the debate will be heated, as massive commercial interests compete with those who argue that free trade in culture cannot be treatedlike bananas.

Mr Toubon, who tried to ban "Franglais" from the French language, told the culture committee that European culture should not become a "stamping ground" for non-European businessmen and he accused the US movie industry of "dumping" products on European markets.

European multi-media experts must be encouraged to build up their own industry to counter US and Japanese domination, he said. Already, Hollywood had exploited European myths and legends for its films. Now, US media magnates were moving in to exploit works of art by buying up the rights to display them on CD-ROM. "European cultural heritage is among the greatest in the world. It is our cultural heritage which is at stake," he said