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

By David Ellwood


Is French culture exceptional, exceptionalist, or just… unique? The question was raised again this year by the row which broke out just before the start of US-EU trade talks. The French government insisted that cultural products, particularly film and television, should be left out of the negotiations due to their special status as timeless acts of artistic creation. So, said Paris, they should be considered beyond and outside the hard rules of  market-driven commerce, so overwhelmingly favourable to the scale and priorities of  America’s creative industries. This position was greeted with derision by a wide selection of Anglo-American commentators in politics, business, and the media. Most of the critics choose to forget or ignore what lay behind this very French-looking story. But Europe and America had been here before.

In 1993, as the GATT process was about to give way to the new World Trade Organisation, President Mitterand and a wide array of French, European, and even some American film makers threw the entire procedure into disarray by insisting on what they called the ‘cultural exception’. GATT, they said, had always recognized that culture should not be regulated like bananas or machine tools. But by now wider issues had arisen to justify this position and ensure its relevance. Mitterand said:

Creations of the spirit are not just commodities; the elements of culture are not pure business. Defending the pluralism of works of art and the freedom of the public to choose is a duty. What is at stake is the cultural identity of all our nations. It is the right of all peoples to their own culture. It is the freedom to create our own images. A society which abandons to others the way of showing itself, that is to say the way of presenting itself to itself, is a society enslaved.

The French went on to defend this position in the European Parliament and UNESCO, and developed it under governments of the left and the right. It drove official cultural policy at home and abroad, as the nation felt ever more intensely the new pressures springing from globalization in general, and the Internet in particular. It was France which first tried to create a national equivalent of Google, and was the first to denounce the risks in Google’s efforts to digitalise a large part – the English-language component – of the world’s literary heritage. Latterly, governments in Paris have attempted to counter-act the growth of  US-based Internet services by insisting they pay a tax on the systems that transmit them.

Film poster for L’Atlantide

But French policy had evolved radically since the 1990s. Largely protectionist to start with,  it now aims at defending and encouraging every form of cultural diversity to be found in the world, especially those thought to be touching on national identities, however defined. In 2000 the Culture Minister, Catherine Trautmann, came up with a precise definition of the difference between ‘cultural exception’ and ‘diversity’. The first, she said, was the legal vehicle or conception to be used to promote the second, a universalist idea of pluralism which could unite nations large and small, old and new, developed and otherwise. Meanwhile at home governments demonstrated their commitment to culture by investing in access and decentralization, and strengthening the subsidy system which would hopefully encourage creativity, and on which French cinema had long depended like many others. Abroad France deployed the largest number of cultural associations of any nation, and privileged language, as well cinema, fine arts, gastronomy and all the other resources which still make the nation the world’s most visited of all by international tourists.

Yet all the evidence suggests that the élites running France are not in any way satisfied with the status of their country in the world, its standing, prestige or ‘soft power’. The idea lingered for long that France is ‘a great power promised to an exceptional destiny,” the historian Christophe Prochasson told Le Monde (as related in a sorrowful story from Paris by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times). “Today… this illusion is disappearing gradually and France is a country in mourning.” What is lacking now in France, he said, is the music of history, “the capacity to contemplate tomorrows that sing.” By that standard, though, how many nations can feel happy ?

Like America, the other great  Western nation born of 18th century revolutionary ideology, France must manage the tension between the universal pretensions of that ideology and the ‘exceptional destiny’ it reserves to itself. But all exceptionalisms are invidious, and so divisive, since they seem deliberately to provoke envy. In France’s case the nationalist version expressed by a President like Jacques Chirac in the early 2000’s grated on many a foreign ear. Here was a French leader who produced a formal strategy for countering American ‘hyperpower’, so continuing the tradition which since the days of de Gaulle, had always put culture at the centre of the State’s action at home and abroad, and saw the US in all its forms as at best a provocation, seductive and challenging, at worst a menace.

America has managed the universalist-exceptionalist paradox with the force of its popular culture and by keeping alight (just) the beacon on the Statue of Liberty, that great French tribute to the revolutionary roots both nations share. But as the Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper wrote in defense of the ‘cultural exception’, French propositions get caricatured because the world doesn’t speak French.. and ‘an Anglo-American narrative is disseminated in which France is cast as an irrational obstacle to progress.’ Meanwhile, said Kuper, 16 other EU states had endorsed the French position on the trade talks. If a key definition of ‘national identity’ is recognition of a people’s difference, as a historical reality and a right, the French were making some progress in Europe. Yet even as the Anglo-Saxons (especially the British) were coping with the same diversity challenge inside their own states, they refused to see that the French might have a point. Money spoke louder.

David Ellwood is an Associate Professor of International History at University of Bologna and Adjunct Professor in European-American Relations at Johns Hopkins University, SAIS Bologna Center. He is the author of The Shock of America: Europe and the Challenge of the Century. His first major book was Italy 1943-1945: The Politics of Liberation (1985) then came Rebuilding Europe: Western Europe, America and Postwar Reconstruction (1992). The fundamental theme of his research — the function of American power in contemporary European history — has shifted over the years to emphasize cultural power, particularly that of the American cinema industry. He was President of the International Association of Media and History 1999-2004 and a Fellow of the Rothermere America Institute, Oxford, in 2006. Read more from David Ellwood on OUPblog.

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Image credit: French movie poster: L’Atlantide by Manuel Orazi [public domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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3 Responses to “Why do the French insist on their ‘cultural exception’?”
  1. Patrick says:

    I believe that France, or any other nation, has a right to its cultural heritage. If France want to subsidize its culture with French movies, etc., so be it.
    However, it doesn’t mean any non-French nation has to care. It doesn’t mean any non-French nation has to subsidize or support France’s desires.

    When France objects to technology creation and events outside its border, Google scanning in English texts and trying to tax the Internet services from English countries, it is not protecting French culture. It is a political-economic power grab, nothing more. Lack of French innovation in technology and lack of support of technology businesses is not an attack on French culture.

    France cultural promotion? “oui”. France infringing on the rest of the world? The rest of the world is entitled to say “non”.

  2. Todd says:

    What is this ‘culture’ that France promotes? Baguettes and berets? Imagine if Australia decided it would promote ‘Australian culture’. What would that be… barbecues and beaches? This toxic idea that a nation has ‘a culture’ is a slap in the face of all pluralist societies. It’s typical European authoritarian paternalism. Oh, our people can’t be /trusted/ not to consume American television. They just don’t know what’s good for them. Before long, we’ll be retitling Paris to San Francisco! All this despite the fact that Britain has no trouble holding onto a whole plurality of cultures, some less influenced by the US, some more. No no, we will have none of that. There is one French culture, and woe betides anyone, French or otherwise, who dares rally against my conception of what that culture is, cobbled together from editorials in Le Monde and my upper class Sciences-Po/ENA upbringing.

    Ugh, this is why I don’t live in Europe anymore. Next time your well-intentioned paternalism gets you another Hitler, you can kindly deal with him yourselves.

  3. [...] from Germany, David Ellwood at the OUP blog traces the history of French ‘cultural exceptionalism’ in light of EU-US free trade negotiations. The French government has taken the position that [...]

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