Don't mock: the French have a point

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THERE IS a foul whiff of Francophobia in the London air. As the deadline for the Gatt deal draws near, alarm about the prospects for world trade is beginning to fuse with old-fashioned frog-bashing. John Major's 'blunt warning . . . get your tractors off our lawn' is but the most public example of the angry abuse heard throughout Whitehall and the Tory party: here they go again, bloody French, selfish, inward-looking protectionists.

In this mood, the principled case for free trade becomes polluted with its opposite, xenophobia. It is time, therefore, to state an obvious but seemingly unpopular truth: in trying to defend their culture the French have got a point. Statesmanship requires that we try to understand their agony, not mock it.

The matter is urgent because of the 15 December deadline for the world trade agreement. Failure to agree, most economists and politicians concur, would cause terrible economic pain in the years ahead: millions of lost jobs, slower growth, even trade wars and the political instability that follows. It matters more than almost anything else politicians can affect. The key pressure point is French nationalism. Appeasing it is urgently necessary.

Such appeasement cannot come on the central question of agricultural subsidies. Reopening the Blair House talks looks impossible. Free trade in farming is too bound up with the whole purpose of the Gatt round for it to be cast aside at this stage. The breakthrough needs to come, therefore, on a matter that politicians are slowly realising could be as important as agriculture: the protection of national culture, and specifically, of films.

Agriculture and film-making are not as far apart as they may seem. French identity is romantically intertwined with the former, though relatively few peasants still hang around in blue smocks under the cypresses. For the modern nation, culture, and in particular the subsidised French film industry, is almost as important an expression of Frenchness. The industry is artistically successful and produces around 100 films a year.

Imported US films are more popular - in 1992, 35 per cent of the French market went to French films and 58 per cent to US-made ones - but the French have their successes: Germinal, based on Zola's novel, is currently outselling the two top Hollywood offerings, The Fugitive and Jurassic Park (but only in France, which is why Germinal needed a subsidy and Mr Spielberg didn't).

Hollywood, unsurprisingly, wants completely free trade in films, an end to subsidies and an end to the European Community quota system which, rather ineffectively, tries to limit the number of American films shown on television. If French films were as good as French cheeses, say the Americans, they wouldn't need to be protected by barriers and subsidies.

The French see things differently. There is a mood of semi-hysterical nationalism about the issue, which neatly mirrors the Francophobia here. Gerard Depardieu, the actor built like a cross between General de Gaulle and Kenneth Clarke, thinks European cinema is in deadly danger from free trade; the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe talks of 'intellectual terrorism', and film- makers accuses Hollywood of planning 'cultural genocide'.

Yes, you've spotted it: the well- known Anglo-Saxon plot for world domination is back. A particularly choice example came from the director of one French cinema company who suggested that American films were merely a sneaky way of trying to sell the corrupt consumerist lifestyle to high-minded Europeans. Would jeans have invaded the world had there been no Westerns, he asked. This is crazy stuff. The sensible answer is that the world would have been a lot duller without both jeans and Westerns.

Nor is it clear that the exclusion of film and television from the free trade agreement would be in the long-term interests of the French film industry. The European Commission is discussing an offer to the US that would allow cultural protection of films - subsidies, perhaps, though not quotas, which are anyway going to be made absurd by the satellite revolution.

Even taking account of the hyperbole, conspiracy mania and romanticism of the French film lobby, there is a great political question here which cannot be brushed aside: how, in a free-trading and satellite-linked world, do the smaller cultures survive and thrive? The success of English as a lingua franca makes it hard for us to understand the fear that other linguistic groups feel as they are marginalised, first in the business world, then in the entertainment market.

French films cannot compete in America because US distributors won't handle subtitled material. No one else is going to make French films, nor is the huge American industry remotely threatened by French subsidies. If the French are prepared to elect politicians who subsidise a film industry unique to that country, in order to preserve it, should the world really interfere? There is surely a distinction between free trade and the stifling of untradeable national cultures.

London should be strongly backing the French film industry lobby in every sensible way. If, as the Commission wants, films are to be included in the Gatt, British ministers should be arguing that the safeguards for Continental films should be strong and secure. The tactical reason for this is that it is urgently necessary to calm Parisian fevers about the Anglo-Saxon plot, and thus make it easier for the French government to retreat on agriculture. But there is a principled reason, too: we are dealing here not simply with another whingeing interest-group but with deep and constant human emotions, the very stuff of national identity and belonging. It would be curious if British Conservatives, of all people, were unable to spot the danger.

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