French lose fight with Hollywood

While Paris fails to tighten quotas on American TV, the British film industry, despite many Oscar nominations, is still in dire straits Sarah Helm in Bordeaux hears a Culture Minister warn of a new wave of barbarians
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The Independent Online
From inside the gilded salons of a Bordeaux mansion there was little sense that Europe faced a new barbarian invasion. True, "Le quick snack" and Big Macs were on offer down the road and the video shop was promoting Lethal Weapon II but the advance still seemed limited. Yet, according to Jacques Toubon, the French Minister of Culture, American hordes are capturing Europe's cultural identity by taking over the airwaves. While Britain worries about a single European currency, France fears a single European language it knows will not be French.

Mr Toubon learnt yesterday, however, that his crusade faces defeat. European Union culture ministers, meeting in Bordeaux, rejected France's call for tighter television quotas as a way of restricting US programming.

Despite efforts to nurture conviviality with free-flowing St Emilion, Mr Toubon ended the day isolated: the British and Danes advocated outright abolition of existing quotas, which call for a minimum of 51 per cent European works on television, excluding sports and news. Germany said European culture should be addressed at a national level, advocating a kind of "cultural subsidiarity". Only Greece and Belgium backed Paris. Other Europeans favoured maintaining existing quotas while seeking other measures to support Europe's television, film and audio-visual industry, such as increased investment and telecommunication levies.

It was not the first time a Toubon crusade faced defeat. Recently the minister advocated banning Franglais, only to be overruled by the French Constitutional Council on grounds that his diktat violated right of free communication. The son of a croupier, Mr Toubon's credentials are often mocked: his nickname is Mr All-good. Simply sneering at him, however, does no justice to his arguments. Britain and Sir Leon Brittan, the EU Trade Commissioner, say quotas do not work. Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, said yesterday that, while Britain, like France, believed in supporting European culture, it rejected the principle of quotas because they limited choice.

But many MEPs and people in the film and television world say US domination is such that there is no free choice. It is a tenth cheaper to buy an American package than a European-made product because Hollywood has already covered its costs in the US before the programme is effectively dumped on Europe. In 1993 the US exported $4bn of audio-visual work to Europe; Europe's exports were worth $336m.

Hollywood, helped by the US government, has built pan-European distribution networks. Cinema is under almost total US domination, with 80 per cent of box-office receipts in Europe going to Hollywood. Free-marketeers say that with more television channels there will be room for Starsky and Hutch as well as Germinal. However, this too is a deception, say the regulators.

Britain operates the slackest rules against US media giants, letting them broadcast by satellite to Europe without restrictions; Commission officials say quotas would work if properly enforced. "Without quotas it will soon be 100-per-cent American shows on television. In five to 10 years it will even be true for the BBC," said Mr Toubon. "I say to Sir Leon: `It is I who am the liberal because it is I who am against this monopoly.' And I say: `Why do you protect European aircraft industries without protecting our culture?' "

It looks likely that the Commission, charged with proposing new measures, will produce a compromise, but the way has been cleared for abandoning quotas. However, the argument over Europe's cultural indentity will not end there.

The French say Europe must now regulate US domination of the multi-media market, which will offer viewers English-language television shopping, chat-lines and much more. Already multi-media giants are snapping up European art for conversion into audio-visual display on CD-ROM. The rights to market the National Gallery's paintings on CD have been bought by the US Microsoft company, which is believed to be eyeing the Louvre. Economists predict that a European audio-visual industry could support four million jobs but not if the Americans get there first.

"If Europe follows France's lead, I am optimistic we can win. If not, all will be lost. France is the only country giving priority to preserving Europe's popular living culture. We give culture the same priority as the economy and agriculture," said Mr Toubon. "Europe must have a cultural personalty."