French rebel over music language quotas

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

image captionSinger Zaz has a huge following in France

In France this week, pop music radio stations staged an unprecedented protest: a boycott of the 30-year-old quota system that requires them to make sure that 40% of the songs they play are in French.

They were angry because the government wants to tighten the system still further by penalising radio stations if they just keep playing the same French hits over and again in order to fulfil their quota obligation.

It's all a reminder of how in France cultural protection - an official policy of defending the national language and culture - is still very much alive.

In France, no government ever got elected with an arts policy that said: "OK, from now on you guys - artists, film-makers, musicians - we think you have to stand for yourselves.

"We think the state spends far too much on culture, and the taxpayer won't put up with it any longer.

"So we're going to start taking down some of the trade barriers that spare you too much foreign competition. We don't think that kind of protection does you any good, does the arts any good - does France any good."

That kind of discourse won't wash in France - because if you ask most people, they agree that the country does indeed need to preserve what's referred to portentously as its "cultural exception".

What this amounts to in practice is a set of policies, in place for decades now, that are supposed to fend off the damaging effects of a globalised culture that is dominated by the US and, to a lesser extent, Britain - but above all by the English language.

French governments worry terribly that their island of culture is disappearing under a global tide of Anglo-Saxon pulp.

This radio quota row is a perfect example.

To keep French music production alive, there is a rule that radio stations have to play a minimum of four songs in 10 that are French.

image copyrightReuters
image captionNolwenn Leroy rose to fame after winning the second season of French TV's Star Academy

Otherwise (the fear is) DJs just play all the big international American blockbusters, the kids would briefly rave, but the French stars of tomorrow would never get a look-in.

But living in the real world, the radio stations are chafing at the bit.

For one thing these days there's nothing stopping anyone who wants to hear only US rubbish from tuning in over the internet to a streaming site.

Radio has to compete with that.

And second, irony of ironies, more and more French music production is actually in English - because the truly talented performers want to sell outside of just the protected Francophone market.

In other words, true talent does not need protection.

That is the terrible danger that lurks behind the French policy of so many years.

It's all very well saying: "Look how we've kept the French film industry alive," or, "Look how we protect French music production," but if the end-products are only satisfying a dwindling domestic market, their quality will suffer, and they will cease to be the world-class flag-wavers for France that governments want them to be.

Arguably, this is what is already happening.

image captionDJ and producer David Guetta has had success across the globe

Shored up by myriad aid schemes, French cinema pumps out hundreds of films every year, but with rare exceptions they have little impact abroad.

Too many are self-indulgent rubbish.

The French literary scene is helped by a minimum book price and state aid to bookshops.

But the number of novelists who break into the international market is very small.

Too much Paris theatre is divided between the ultra-highbrow and embarrassingly out-of-date farces.

The great risk attached to over-protection of the arts is that they become incestuous, self-promoting and inward-looking.

Best-selling albums in France:

1. Celine Dion - D'eux (1995)

2. Francis Cabrel - Samedi soir sur la terre (1994)

3. Supertramp - Breakfast in America (1979)

4. Patrick Bruel - Alors Regarde (1989)

5. Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

6. Michael Jackson - Thriller (1982)

7. Various artists - Starmania (1978)

8. The Beatles - 1967-1970 (1973)

9. Jean-Jacques Goldman - Entre gris clair et gris fonce (1987)

10. Louise Attaque - Louise Attaque(1997)


You don't have to be a rabid economic liberal to see that competition is the best cure for stagnation.

Of course, it is possible argue it both ways: maybe without protection the French cultural scene would be helpless against the dreaded Anglo-Saxon invader.

The fact that there is a French film industry at all is partly thanks to the generous help it gets from the state.

But the music scene actually points the other way.

Today there are several French stars who have made it on the international scene.

Groups like Daft Punk, Phoenix and Air, the DJ David Guetta: they all compete with the best the world has to offer.

And they all did it on their own.

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