Culture Wars French 'Exception' Threatens Trade Deal

This week, EU member states are expected to give the green light on talks for a wide-reaching trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement. But French demands for films and culture to be exempted from negotiations could stall or derail the plan.
French actress and "Amelie" star Audrey Tautou at the Cannes Film Festival

French actress and "Amelie" star Audrey Tautou at the Cannes Film Festival

Foto: Gareth Cattermole/ Getty Images

It's the country that brought us "Amelie" and silver screen greats like Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. But its insistence on its "cultural exception" could derail the planned start to talks to create the world's largest free-trade area between the European Union and the United States -- an initiative that has been strongly promoted by Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

EU trade ministers are expected to finalize the scope of negotiations at a meeting in Brussels on Friday. A unanimous agreement is required in order for talks to get the green light at next week's G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. But speaking to members of parliament on Wednesday, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said his government would exercise its veto if audiovisual media like the Internet, video on demand, television and film aren't removed as negotiating areas.

"France will oppose the opening of the negotiations if culture and cultural industries are not protected, are not excluded," Ayrault told parliament, describing the issue as "critical," according to French news agency AFP.

The French fear Hollywood dominance of the European film industry, despite a European Commission compromise that would ensure that the current system of subsidies in France and many other countries could remain in place. It would also protect French radio quotas that 40 percent of music played on French radio stations be in the national language and that the same percentage of programs on television be French productions. The French position is supported by a number of leading actors from the country, including actress Berenice Bejo of the Oscar-winning film "The Artist," as well as the European Parliament.

'Concrete Redlines'

Germany, which had previously sided with France, switched its position earlier this week, abandoning its objections. The EU has has proposed setting "concrete redlines" to protect European policies promoting culture.

But according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, negotiators representing Britain in the trade agreement have said they might reject talks if the European Commission caves to French demands.

One of the key demands in entering into a trade agreement has been that conditions not be placed prior to negotiations, and US negotiators are already warning that France could be opening a Pandora's box. The Süddeutsche cited German government officials as saying the French demands would destroy the possibility of a broad free-trade agreement.

"If a mandate is released that constrains the negotiators -- whatever you want to call it, a carve-out, a red line, an exception -- if it's not a clean mandate, it will increase the pressure on our side to do the same," William Kennard, the US ambassador to the EU, told the Financial Times in comments published on Tuesday. "There's a quid pro quo here, and there will be a price to pay."

The US is also unhappy with the compromise circulated last week by Ireland, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency. "The mechanisms existing at the level of either the European Union or the member states for the promotion of the European cultural works shall not be affected," the document reads. "All forms of subsidies to the audio-visual sector shall be excluded from any commitments." However, the compromise would not exclude the audio-visual sector from talks -- it would simply set redlines ensuring that cultural subsidies and quotas could be preserved.

Too Important To Be Allowed To Fail

Trade between the United States and the European Union accounts for 50 percent of global gross domestic product and secures an estimated 15 million jobs. Keen to reap the harvest of a trade agreement, which they view as a cheap economic stimulus package, both London and Berlin are pressuring France to abandon its position.

Speaking at a conference of the American Institute of Contemporary German Studies, German Economics Minister Philipp Rösler said this week that a trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement is too important to be allowed to fail, the business daily Handelsblatt reported. Paris, he argued, needs to accept that. He said he also believed a deal would be reached on Friday giving the EU a mandate to negotiate the treaty.

Rösler argued that the rise of Asia and other emerging economies leave no other choice than a merger of the world's two largest economic blocs in order to address the competitive challenge.

In Germany, politicians are hoping for a reasonable French position in the end. "Paris shouldn't concentrate on principles," Daniel Caspary, the trade issues spokesperson for the conservative Christian Democrats in the European Parliament told Handelsblatt, "but rather on the outcome of talks."

As the paper notes, however, an increasing number of people on the French side are worried that Internet giants like Google, YouTube and others will play an increasingly important role in the cultural sector, that they will pay fewer taxes and that they will become competitors who don't contribute to financing culture. And that would be unacceptable to a country which places such a heavy emphasis on its culture.

dsl -- with wires
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