FRANCE'S bid to use its nation's six-month presidency of the European Union to stem the tide of American films and television programming in Europe met polite but solid opposition from a majority of European Union culture ministers meeting here Feb. 14.
The rebuff cuts off one of the last options for France. Last week, a new European Commission rejected French proposals to strengthen enforcement of a 1989 EU directive calling on member states to broadcast a majority of European programming ''each time that is possible.'' French officials hoped to use this informal meeting of cultural ministers to mount a new offensive.
''France is fighting for quotas because we want Europe to keep its personality,'' French Minister of Culture Jacques Toubon told journalists. ''The issue is: Do you want 100 percent of the images that appear on European screens to be not European? That's just what the Americans want, and that's what those who want to abandon quotas want.''
According to a French dossier defending quotas, US productions have increased their share of the EU's film market from 38 percent of box-office receipts in 1980 to 88 percent in 1993. ''American companies invested $27.3 billion in producing their 583 films. Europe invested only $8.6 billion. Such an imbalance is sufficient explanation for American supremacy,'' the dossier concludes.
French officials say they are completing studies that will prove that quotas stimulate national audiovisual production.
The French argument did not carry the day and may even have firmed up the opposition. Northern European states -- including Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Britain -- argued against quotas. The Danes called on phasing them out altogether. One of the three newest EU members, Sweden, urged members not to be defensive about Europe's cultural heritage and not to assume that viewers will always choose US productions.
''The vast majority of delegates thinks that quotas are not a solution that would shelter European films,'' Helmut Schafer, delegate from the German Foreign Affairs Ministry, told journalists. ''We don't need to fear that American productions will be the only choice in Europe. As commercial television [stations] take hold in Germany, for example, they will have the financial means through advertising to follow demand and mount their own programming. We now have German soap operas -- whether the British and the French care to watch them is another matter.''
The cultural ministers uniformly backed the European Commission's strategy of stronger industry subsidies. On Feb. 8, the commission doubled its subsidies to Europe's audiovisual industry to $500 million.