Cultural Quotas

MEMORABLE drama from directors like Godard and Truffaut, haunting childhood scenes, comic delights from Jacques Tati - they're all found in French movies. If any great filmmaking tradition deserves to be preserved, it's that one.

Quotas and taxes, however, may not be the best way to ensure this. Yet there they stand, even after some often contentious trade-liberalization talks. Last month in Geneva, an accord was reached under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). One sticking point was French insistence that film and TV productions be excluded from the pact. American negotiators eventually gave up efforts to dissuade France from retaining a system that requires 60 percent of French TV to be European in content and imposes on foreign productions taxes that subsidize French filmmaking.

The French formula exceeds even the European Union's requirement that TV channels, public or private, air programming that is at least 50 percent European. And unlike the EU, France applies the 60 percent TV ratio separately during prime time, which greatly increases the quota's impact.

Daniel Toscan du Plantier, president of the marketing group Unifrance, has been quoted as conceding that only some 20 of the 150 films made by France each year are of high quality. Similarly, only a minority of the 450 productions made in the United States, he says, are worthwhile. But the French rationale for quotas and taxes goes beyond numbers. It holds that without protection, France's cultural heritage would be washed away by a largely American flood of crass, shallow, sometimes violent films and glitzy TV material. Strong-arm American marketing tactics and low overseas product prices that verge on ``dumping'' are also part of the problem, the French say.

By contrast, they claim that however unsuccessful at times, their own productions are built around ideas and provide that delicacy of emotion and intellectual edge for which French films have long been noted. US film and TV representatives counter that the French want to safeguard with unfair tactics the flow of foreign tax revenue needed to subsidize sometimes dull films cranked out by a flagging industry. The official French position ignores an inconvenient point: Large numbers of French love US film and TV fare. Otherwise France would not be arguing that its culture is endangered.

Most Western governments protect their arts through some form of subsidy. But the legitimate practice of providing a domestic cultural alternative to imported fare is one thing. Force-feeding that alternative to your own people through heavy quotas is another. Creative French TV and film productions should be seen in France and in the world. Yet when and how much they are viewed should be left to viewers, not to officials. Once the GATT agreement is ratified, the US should revisit the issue.

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