E.T. lands in Paris as a hero, but a few French ask him to 'go home'
E.T.'s powers apparently have no end. They are even shaming perhaps the most powerful foe of all - French customs.
E.T. dolls were recently denied customs clearance here. Dolls are the only product from Hong Kong that do not have a quota. But a zealous customs agent took one look at the imitation ''monster'' and refused to classify him as a doll.
Then Laurent Zilberburg, E.T.'s promoter, sent President Francois Mitterrand a little E.T. and wrote him a letter.
''It is not normal, Mr. President,'' he wrote, ''that an exercise destined to help start the economy going again in a period of crisis is blocked.''
President Mitterrand intervened, and voila, 1 million little E.T.s are now in the country.
Similarly, Steven Spielberg's movie is defying the government's attempts to combat American ''cultural imperialism.''
Last summer, Culture Minister Jack Lang denounced ''the standardized, stereotyped productions that whittle away our national cultures.'' Though he did not name the United States as the culprit, there was no hiding the target - earlier he had boycotted an American film festival at Deauville.
But since opening here Dec. 1, E.T. has racked up the best two-week box office total ever, selling some 700,000 tickets. On the Champs Elysees alone, no fewer than five cinemas are featuring the movie. At each, there is a long line.
Even the critics, who often frown on popular acclaim with intellectual disdain, loved the film. Some could not resist resorting to lengthy critiques comparing E.T.'s story to the life of Christ. But most contented themselves with praising it as a remarkable fable.
Of course, while E.T. seems to be almost everywhere here now, not all Frenchmen are invoking his name to convey a positive message. Recently, some supporters of former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing compared E.T. to Franccois Mitterrand: Both are afraid, both are alone, 30 million light-years from home.
In Japan, E.T. is also being compared to the new prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone. But there E.T. assumes positive characteristics. According to a poll, Japanese youth feel E.T. and Mr. Nakasone are the most ''attractive'' personalities in the world.
Along with E.T., another American import is a hit in France this holiday season: Pac-Man. Five years after taking off in the United States and a year after being introduced in West Germany and Britain, Atari and Mattel have finally arrived here this year. Was the delay another Gallic snub to progress? No, says Christian Paternot of Atari. The peculiar electronics of French televisions made it difficult to adapt the video games to them.
Supporting his argument is the fact that there has been no delay in the public's acceptance. Both Mattel and Atari, the two industry leaders along with Philips, report they can barely keep up with demand. And in the past few weeks, two of the three national newsweeklies have featured stories on video games, one even as a cover story.
The future looks bright as well. Mr. Paternot of Atari boldly predicts that within five years 20 percent of French households will have a video game. Only 1 percent do today.
The only thing that could stop Pac-Man is what almost stopped E.T. - customs. The government recently decreed that Japanese video recorders must pass through a small inland customs post in Poitiers instead of the big Le Havre port. Video recorders are not one of life's necessities, Foreign Trade Minister Michel Jobert explained.
The same logic, Atari and Mattel fear, could be applied to video games. ''We're a bit worried,'' Mr. Paternot said. ''If we get too big, the government could easily turn against us like they have against the Japanese.''
But how could Mr. Mitterrand not show as much sympathy for Pac-Man as for E.T.?