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Home » Why do the French insist on their ‘cultural exception’?

Why do the French insist on their ‘cultural exception’?


By David Ellwood

Is French tradition distinctive, exceptionalist, or simply… distinctive? The query was raised once more this yr by the row which broke out simply earlier than the beginning of US-EU commerce talks. The French authorities insisted that cultural merchandise, significantly movie and tv, ought to be unnoticed of the negotiations because of their particular standing as timeless acts of creative creation. So, stated Paris, they need to be thought of past and out of doors the laborious guidelines of  market-driven commerce, so overwhelmingly beneficial to the size and priorities of  America’s artistic industries. This place was greeted with derision by a wide array of Anglo-American commentators in politics, enterprise, and the media. Most of the critics select to neglect or ignore what lay behind this very French-looking story. However Europe and America had been right here earlier than.

In 1993, because the GATT course of was about to provide method to the brand new World Commerce Organisation, President Mitterand and a wide selection of French, European, and even some American movie makers threw the complete process into disarray by insisting on what they known as the ‘cultural exception’. GATT, they stated, had all the time acknowledged that tradition shouldn’t be regulated like bananas or machine instruments. However by now wider points had arisen to justify this place and guarantee its relevance. Mitterand stated:

Creations of the spirit aren’t simply commodities; the weather of tradition aren’t pure enterprise. Defending the pluralism of artistic endeavors and the liberty of the general public to decide on is an obligation. What’s at stake is the cultural id of all our nations. It’s the proper of all peoples to their very own tradition. It’s the freedom to create our personal photographs. A society which abandons to others the way in which of displaying itself, that’s to say the way in which of presenting itself to itself, is a society enslaved.

The French went on to defend this place within the European Parliament and UNESCO, and developed it underneath governments of the left and the correct. It drove official cultural coverage at dwelling and overseas, because the nation felt ever extra intensely the brand new pressures springing from globalization typically, and the Web specifically. It was France which first tried to create a nationwide equal of Google, and was the primary to denounce the dangers in Google’s efforts to digitalise a big half – the English-language part – of the world’s literary heritage. Latterly, governments in Paris have tried to counter-act the expansion of  US-based Web companies by insisting they pay a tax on the methods that transmit them.

Movie poster for L’Atlantide

However French coverage had developed radically for the reason that Nineteen Nineties. Largely protectionist to start out with,  it now goals at defending and inspiring each type of cultural range to be discovered on this planet, particularly these regarded as referring to nationwide identities, nonetheless outlined. In 2000 the Tradition Minister, Catherine Trautmann, got here up with a exact definition of the distinction between ‘cultural exception’ and ‘range’. The primary, she stated, was the authorized car or conception for use to advertise the second, a universalist thought of pluralism which might unite nations massive and small, outdated and new, developed and in any other case. In the meantime at dwelling governments demonstrated their dedication to tradition by investing in entry and decentralization, and strengthening the subsidy system which might hopefully encourage creativity, and on which French cinema had lengthy depended like many others. Overseas France deployed the biggest variety of cultural associations of any nation, and privileged language, as effectively cinema, tremendous arts, gastronomy and all the opposite sources which nonetheless make the nation the world’s most visited of all by worldwide vacationers.

But all of the proof means that the élites operating France aren’t in any means glad with the standing of their nation on this planet, its standing, status or ‘smooth energy’. The thought lingered for lengthy that France is ‘a terrific energy promised to an distinctive future,” the historian Christophe Prochasson informed Le Monde (as associated in a sorrowful story from Paris by Maureen Dowd within the New York Instances). “Immediately… this phantasm is disappearing step by step and France is a rustic in mourning.” What’s missing now in France, he stated, is the music of historical past, “the capability to ponder tomorrows that sing.” By that customary, although, what number of nations can really feel blissful ?

Like America, the opposite nice  Western nation born of 18th century revolutionary ideology, France should handle the stress between the common pretensions of that ideology and the ‘distinctive future’ it reserves to itself. However all exceptionalisms are invidious, and so divisive, since they appear intentionally to impress envy. In France’s case the nationalist model expressed by a President like Jacques Chirac within the early 2000’s grated on many a overseas ear. Right here was a French chief who produced a proper technique for countering American ‘hyperpower’, so persevering with the custom which for the reason that days of de Gaulle, had all the time put tradition on the centre of the State’s motion at dwelling and overseas, and noticed the US in all its varieties as at finest a provocation, seductive and difficult, at worst a menace.

America has managed the universalist-exceptionalist paradox with the pressure of its in style tradition and by preserving alight (simply) the beacon on the Statue of Liberty, that nice French tribute to the revolutionary roots each nations share. However because the Monetary Instances columnist Simon Kuper wrote in protection of the ‘cultural exception’, French propositions get caricatured as a result of the world doesn’t converse French.. and ‘an Anglo-American narrative is disseminated through which France is solid as an irrational impediment to progress.’ In the meantime, stated Kuper, 16 different EU states had endorsed the French place on the commerce talks. If a key definition of ‘nationwide id’ is recognition of a folks’s distinction, as a historic actuality and a proper, the French had been making some progress in Europe. But even because the Anglo-Saxons (particularly the British) had been dealing with the identical range problem inside their very own states, they refused to see that the French may need a degree. Cash spoke louder.

David Ellwood is an Affiliate Professor of Worldwide Historical past at College of Bologna and Adjunct Professor in European-American Relations at Johns Hopkins College, SAIS Bologna Heart. He’s the writer of The Shock of America: Europe and the Problem of the Century. His first main e book was Italy 1943-1945: The Politics of Liberation (1985) then got here Rebuilding Europe: Western Europe, America and Postwar Reconstruction (1992). The elemental theme of his analysis — the perform of American energy in up to date European historical past — has shifted through the years to emphasise cultural energy, significantly that of the American cinema trade. He was President of the Worldwide Affiliation of Media and Historical past 1999-2004 and a Fellow of the Rothermere America Institute, Oxford, in 2006. Learn extra from David Ellwood on OUPblog.

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Picture credit score: French film poster: L’Atlantide by Manuel Orazi [public domain]. By way of Wikimedia Commons.


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