With Dinosaurs at Door, French Cry `Cultural Invasion'
To protect `civilization,' France aims to oppose easing of global trade in video and film
IN England, some children are so accustomed to American crime movies that they expect, if ever arrested, to be told, ``You have the right to remain silent'' - as guaranteed under United States law.
In Belgium, many moviegoers identify more closely with the American films starring home-grown muscleman Jean Claude Van Damme than with anything produced closer to home in Europe.
And with Steven Spielberg's dinosaurs beginning their romp through France this fall, French culture defenders worry that the 60 percent share of the French market that US movies already take will only go higher.
Mr. Spielberg's ``Jurassic Park'' ``is a menace to French culture,'' says Culture Minister Jacques Toubon, because ``with 450 copies [in France], it will show in 1 of every 5 movie theaters in cities with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.''
These effects of American cinema's global dominance are what has the French government crying ``cultural invasion'' once again. Only this time, the French say they are out to protect not just themselves, but all of Europe, from the invaders.
The forum where the French are making their case for cultural protection is the Uruguay Round of international trade liberalization negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
If a global trade accord includes movies, as the US wants, France insists it will not sign. The French worry that GATT will make it even easier than it already is for US distributors to market US cultural products abroad.
The GATT's Uruguay Round, now in its seventh year, is better known for its attempts to open up world farm trade, notably by limiting rich countries' subsidizing of farm exports. In that area, too, France is leading the anti-free-trade charge, claiming that a rapid reduction in the subsidies its farmers receive would threaten the way of life in rural France.
Next to the emotional farm controversy, the question of the free circulation of audio-visual products has received minor attention. But that is changing, with the French government now playing the same brinkmanship on the audio-visual issue as it has on farm trade - and with the Dec. 15 deadline for a Uruguay Round accord fast approaching.
The government of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur has gone into high gear on the issue, sending ministers to film festivals in Venice and Deauville, France, to promote the French position, and naming a special ambassador to GATT for the audio-visual talks.
President Francois Mitterrand has assured French cinema luminaries of his support in what is ``not a market problem but a problem of civilization.'' Last week, a delegation of French filmmakers, including actor Gerard Depardieu, pleaded their case for ``European culture'' before the European Parliament.
Mr. Toubon is categoric. ``If the cinema is part of [the GATT agreement], Edouard Balladur will not sign it!,'' he said in recently published interview.
On the other hand, the US says the movie business is a service industry that must not be limited by quotas on its products. With the Uruguay Round placing service-sector trade in the international arena for the first time, the US wants regulations to eliminate quotas - such as those in France - on the foreign movies that can be shown on television.
With the French already squaring off against the US over farm trade, the audio-visual issue might seem to be just another battle in a Franco-American cultural war.
The problem for France, however, is that it is represented in the GATT negotiations by the European Community, and neither the EC's executive commission nor most of France's EC partners are sympathetic to its hard line on audio-visual products.
``You can't really say there is a strong European position on this question,'' says a Belgian diplomat specializing in international trade law. ``The French are seen to be interested because they have production houses and the Americans are interested because their film companies put a lot of money into Clinton's campaign, but the rest of Europe doesn't feel terribly concerned.'' (But on Friday, Belgium did ban Ted Turner's TNT movie channel, saying its all-American content does not conform to EC law.)
French officials say European public opinion, fed on a heavier diet of American movies and television than the French, needs to be awakened to the dangers of a dominant foreign culture. ``Culture is diversity and pluralism,'' argues Toubon, ``and while we're not talking about dictating tastes to the public, it is important to offer the widest possible range of choices.''
To try to guarantee that range, France inspired EC legislation that calls on Community member states to ensure ``wherever possible'' that at least 50 percent of TV programming is European. But even that target is missed, with most countries broadcasting a majority of US fare on TV. France is the exception. It requires 60 percent European programming, and provides indirect subsidies to filmmakers and to TV channels showing European movies.
The EC commission is seeking a compromise that would bring movies and television products into the GATT, while also including a ``cultural specificity'' clause allowing legislation, like the Community's, that seeks to defend domestic production.
``We think there is a case for protecting culture,'' says one EC official, ``when you see how national languages, for example, are suffering under US media influence.''
But a ``cultural specificity'' clause won't be good enough, respond the French, for whom it would only be a dangerous wedge in the door. ``You cannot enter a system that encourages uniformity,'' Toubon says, ``while at the same time fighting for diversity.''