New Quota Law for French Music Draws Praise on Parisian Streets

But without American tunes, radio listeners may start to tune out

DANIEL is singing along in accented English to the American and British tunes playing loudly in the central Paris shoe store where he works.

But when asked about a new 40 percent quota for French music the government has set for the country's radio stations, the affable shoe salesman drops the English for his native French.

``I'm all for it,'' he says. ``A few years ago I wouldn't have been because the music coming out in France was so bad. But now there's some promise,'' he adds, ``and I think what [the government] is doing can encourage our musicians.''

After the French-led debate over European movie quotas that marked last week's conclusion of the Uruguay Round of international trade talks, France is at it again: The government wants 40 percent of radio time to be reserved for French music. The new law, which was getting a last going-over yesterday in the National Assembly, would not take effect until January 1996, to give radio stations time to adapt their programming and musical artists time to rev up their production.

``This law marks the desire of [Communication Minister] Alain Carignon to defend French and Francophone music,'' says Laurent Maillaud, ministry spokesman. ``The idea is to encourage young talent, French and Francophone. It's not meant to be nationalistic.''

That said, the law comes amid other moves in Europe's protectionist-prone south to reduce the presence of foreign - largely American - cultural influences.

Just this week the Spanish parliament approved a law that drastically reduces the ability of the country's movie theaters to show non-European movies. American movies now take three-fourths of the Spanish box office, but the government wants that level reduced to two-thirds. To accomplish that, cinemas will be required to show a higher proportion of European movies, and licenses for dubbing American films will be limited.

The law led to a day without movies in Spain Monday, as most of the country's 1,800 cinemas closed in protest. Movie distributors and cinema owners fear the new law will depress the movie-going market and encourage Spaniards to stay home and watch videos on their VCRs.

The same could happen to France's radio stations, especially those aimed at young listeners. ``If I don't like what they play [on the radio], I'll just listen to this,'' says Eric, a Parisian high school student, holding up his Walkman.

IN fact, French radio stations already have quotas for French music, but they vary from 7 to 70 percent, according to individual contracts the government negotiated with radio stations.

``Forty percent is too much, but then [quotas] are never too healthy if you're a liberal [free-market] thinker,'' says Alain Weil, general director of NRJ, France's most popular station with the ``under 50'' audience. ``But at least this will give everybody the same quota to respect.''

NRJ - pronounced like ``energy'' - currently has a 20 percent French-music quota, which puts it at a disadvantage with some listeners compared to stations with lower quotas.

Mr. Weil says two things will have to happen for the quotas to work. First, the government will have to make sure everyone respects them, which he says it does not with current book quotas; and second, French musical production will have to improve.

``Ten years ago we could play about 40 percent French music, without being required to, because the quality was there,'' he says, contradicting Daniel the shoe salesman. ``Now it isn't. It will now be up to French artists to produce the kind of quality music [American and British] musicians are known for.''

Weil says he is troubled by the quota law's dirigiste overtones, but he notes that the big American musical artists have production and promotional backing that French artists, especially rising talent, cannot hope for. ``I think this could influence the major [producers] to invest more in French talent.''

For supporters of strict quotas, the new law is not so much directed against certain cultures as it is toward preserving a French identity - the same argument given for France's quotas for television programming. ``Song is the expression of the soul of the people,'' said Sen. Adrien Gouteyron, who is seeking even tougher quota measures than those that were finally approved.

One question is whether the law will result in music that is uniquely French, or just end up encouraging clones of what international stars are producing. As French pop singer Julien Clerc puts it (in French) in a recent song, ``No matter if you're from New York or Paris, if you're a musician today, you're American.''

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