French Fried In Quota Quibble

France’s crusade to drive Hollywood films and TV programs off European TV screens ground to a halt last week, as a majority of its EU partners refused to support stricter quotas on the broadcasting of foreign fare in the Union.

After impassioned pleas by French ministers Jacques Toubon and Nicholas Sarkozy at the informal meeting of EU culture ministers held in Bordeaux, it appeared that support for the Gallic line had dwindled to just two countries, Belgium and Greece, making it highly unlikely that the existing Television Without Frontiers directive will be toughened up in the near future.

As it currently stands, the EU’s TV directive stipulates that 51% of programs shown by Euro channels should be of Euro origin “where practicable.” The French want this loophole removed and maintain it has given member states that do not support quotas leeway to flout the law and show as much U.S. material as they like.

But in spite of being lavishly wined and dined at the meeting Feb. 13-14, EU culture ministers overwhelmingly rejected the French argument that the best way to revive Europe’s film and TV industry was through stricter quotas.

“There is no doubt that the vast majority of the Council of Ministers is against the idea of making quotas any stricter,” said Stephen Dorrell, the U.K. minister for heritage and culture.

Other countries like Denmark and Sweden went further and appeared to support dismantling or weakening quotas in the near future. Danish culture minister Jytte Hilden called for a progressive relaxing of quotas.

“Quotas are for fish not for culture,” said a member of the Danish delegation. “Quotas are un-democratic. We have seen no evidence that quotas give benefits.”

The outcome from the Bordeaux meeting is very bad news for the French government, which has made tightening the existing quota provisions of the directive the main goal of its six-month EU presidency that started Jan. 1.

French culture minister Jacques Toubon tried to put a brave face on the setback in an interview with the French daily Liberation: “I will always remember that in September 1993, we were in exactly the same position as regards the cultural exception (in the framework of GATT), and that in December we obtained it. France embodies in this affair the European ideal, that is to say, a Europe which represents something more than national interests. Therefore at the end of the day we will be proved right.”

Toubon emphasized that all the ministers at the meeting agreed on the need to develop Europe’s film and TV industry, and unanimously approved a European Commission proposal to double the financial support given to it over the next five years to $495 million, most of which will go into distribution, training and development.

What worries Europeans is the domination of their market by U.S. films and TV programs. In the cinema, U.S. films’ share of the market has risen to 80% today from 35% in 1968, while America increased its overall sales of programs in Europe to $4.5 billion in 1992 from $411 million in 1984, leaving the EU with an annual trade deficit with the U.S. in the area of more than $4 billion.

The French argue that Hollywood product, which they say has already covered its costs in the U.S. market, will rapidly drive out local programs, since economic pressure will force buyers to pass over more costly Euro-productions. “I am not anti-American,” said Toubon. “It is just that the Americans must realize that Europe is not a hypermarket for audiovisual products like for other things.”

Toubon said he would again press for quotas and higher film and television subsidies as well.

“Only the continent as a whole can act,” he said. “What would happen if we threw out quotas and had 100% American programming? Be realistic!”

All the ministers agreed that some modifications to the TV directive would have to be made, and the best hope for the French now looks to be that the existing law will not be diluted further, and that other support mechanisms, like tax breaks and subsidies, will be introduced at the European level.

EU culture chief Marcelino Oreja told ministers he would produce written proposals for revising the TV directive by mid-March, with the intention that they should be approved by the Commission in advance of the next formal meeting of EU culture ministers on 3 April.

Quotas are still likely to feature in the Commission’s new TV directive. “The best way forward might be to keep quotas as they are at the moment,” Oreja said. “At the same time we might consider progressive reductions in the quota levels and with a deadline for phasing them out completely.”

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