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Spy vs. Spy

Editor’s note: This is the last dispatch to reach Variety’s offices from its Paris bureau chief, who has been accused by the French government of actually understanding the country’s audiovisual policy. French authorities have expelled the reporter, who was last seen boarding the Chunnel train with a fly-fishing rod and a bottle of (duty-free) Nuits St. George.

Desperate attempts to patch up Franco-American relations were being made in Paris late last week following French allegations that five U.S. citizens, including four diplomats, had been involved in economic espionage.

As word filtered out that the allegations involved U.S. attempts to discover the secret of France’s audiovisual policy, worried American TV and film execs fled from their Paris offices, seeking sanctuary in Euro Disneyland.

One senior U.S. film distribution executive, suspected of reporting local box office grosses back to his Hollywood headquarters, had time to send a hurried final fax to the Variety bureau: “They’ll never find me. I’ll blend in, disappear. We all knew this might happen one day. That’s why the theme park exists. It was never meant to make money.”

On the Champs Elysees, angry crowds gathered Feb. 23 to burn all copies of France’s television guide magazines. “We don’t want the Americans finding out about our programming policy,” said a former acquisitions chief at bankrupt web La Cinq.

At the Ministry of Culture, attempts to clarify the extent of the crisis proved to be in vain. Ministry honchos were last week locked in negotiations with local TV producers on whether to greenlight a major sitcom on the affair or settle for a TV movie.

“We’re close to a deal,” admitted a source close to the talks. “The only stumbling block is over credits. The Foreign Ministry says it developed the project, but the Interior Ministry is arguing that it marketed the scandal and should be allowed to co-produce.”

With politicians, industry specialists and the world media due in Brussels over the weekend for high-profile discussions on the information superhighway, the spy brouhaha threatened to overshadow the talks.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials privately threatened to retaliate by expelling the entire Gallic delegation to the American Film Market – accusing the French of attempting to understand how Hollywood works.

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