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  • "The Exception Culturelle Is Dead." Long Live Cultural Diversity:French Cinema and the New Resistance
  • Jonathan Buchsbaum (bio)

In the excitement attending François Mitterrand's election as President of France in 1981, the left arrived in office with an extensive social welfare policy based on state intervention in the economy to extend social protections. After only a few years in power the government changed course and retreated from many of those commitments in an effort to reduce the deficit, and bowed to neo-liberal pressures, including those emanating from the steadily forming European Union. Despite this general characterization of the Socialists' retreat from socialism, the evolution of French audiovisual policy reveals a more complex path, one that actually led to, even catalyzed increasing French resistance to globalizing tendencies beyond the modest confines of the Paysage Audiovisuel Français. So successful has that resistance been that France, one of the initiators of the European Union, was the first country to reject the European constitution. The development of audiovisual policy in France, then, since the 1980s, offers a nuanced commentary on the vagaries of liberalization in France, Europe, and the world.

Very late in the game, France decided to liberalize television. Later than most other European countries, France retained strict state control over television, with no private channels. The Mitterrand government came to power in 1981 with a commitment to reduce state ownership of television for political reasons. For years the Socialists had criticized the state's hold over television, so liberalization, or at least privatization, was one of its electoral commitments. In this case, the state created two private stations, established the first over-the-air pay television, Canal+ (though Canal+ was linked to the state-owned Havas publishing company), and in 1986, with Prime Minister [End Page 5] Chirac in the first cohabitation government, the state privatized the largest state channel, TF1.

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Figure 1.

Cinema Attendance 1982-1991 (millions)

During these same years, cinema entered a tailspin, with attendance falling eventually by almost 50%.1 To shore up the film industry, the government imposed certain rules that required television to invest in cinema, both in the form of direct taxation that went into the government's audiovisual support fund, the compte de soutien, and the compulsory investment of 3% of its annual turnover in cinema.2 That is, there were certain quid pro quos imposed on television in exchange for privatization and authorization of advertising (also applied to state channels), with the new revenue diverted to cinema. In 1989 a new oversight organization, the Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel, was established to regulate television, the third such institution formed since 1982.

Cinema, on the other hand, remained under the auspices of the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), formed in 1946. The CNC essentially collected data on the film industry and administered the support apparatus, which meant primarily the compte de soutien, for many years filled by [End Page 6] the special tax levied on theater ticket prices known as the Special Additional Tax. Like many cinema industries in the industrialized countries, there were strong oligopolistic tendencies in the film industry, particularly in exhibition and distribution, with production somewhat notoriously more scattered and undercapitalized. However, unlike the rules governing television, there was no rule restricting vertical integration.

In fact, in the 1981 Bredin report, Bredin recommended specifically against restricting vertical integration. The report found that fears of the three dominant companies (Gaumont, Pathé, UGC) preventing the "pluralism" of production were unfounded; it did not view that argument as persuasive, noting that it was not clear that "elimination of the integrated groups would revive the fortunes of the independents, and that the careers of many auteurs had flourished precisely with the backing of the groups." Instead, the report counseled establishing several rules to ensure fairer competition, such as non-discrimination by integrated groups against films produced by another group or by an independent, allowing producers to take more responsibility for the distribution strategy, and requiring the groups to support more first films. While recognizing the problems of concentration, the report ultimately refused to restrict vertical integration, citing a more fundamental principle...


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