France and the European Commission are bickering over what to do about Europe’s quota system for foreign films and programs.

Tension flared last week after Jacques Santer, the new Commission president, said he did not support the quota provisions in the EU’s Television Without Frontiers directive, and would be looking into alternative ways to support the European industry. “A quota is always something superficial and can only be kept in place for a limited period of time” he said.

If this was not enough to raise French passions to the boiling point, the intervention of the new culture commissioner, Marcellino Oreja, was. In what seemed to many to be a major shift from the position he took at the beginning of the year, Oreja told the European Parliament he had “no definite views either way” on quotas and would explore options objectively.

Previously, Oreja was a supporter of controversial plans to tighten the quota provisions drawn up by his predecessor, Joao de Deus Pinheiro.

Both Santer’s and Oreja’s comments are a major headache for Paris. The French government has made tightening the existing quota provisions – which require that, where practicable, a majority of material broadcast on TV be of Euro origin – the main goal of its six-month EU presidency that started Jan. 1.

French culture minister Jacques Toubon returned fire Feb. 1 when he told European Parliament members that his government rejected any alternative to quotas to protect the European film from U.S.

Then, in a move calculated to increase pressure on the European Commission, French communications minister Nicholas Sarkozy reiterated the French position Feb. 2 in the influential French daily Le Figaro. Sarkozy said he was “astonished” that Santar had spoken out against quotas.

Oreja told Euro Parliament members recently that he would keep an open mind on quotas but that other options should also be explored, such as creating a ‘European audiovisual support fund’ or allowing EU countries to choose between investment or broadcasting quotas. But Toubon dismissed investment quotas, which he said would allow TF1 to schedule 600 instead of 4,000 European programs a year.

Toubon urged the Commission to draft a new directive, along the lines favored by the French, in time for the next meeting of EU culture ministers in France on Feb. 13-14.

Spokesmen in Brussels for Santer and Oreja have tried to lower the temperature over the last few days, stressing that neither one has made up his mind on the issue. “The quotas will of course be fully considered and if they turn out to be the best system, they will be retained. But should other methods prove to be more effective, it would be a mistake not to take them into account,” said one spokesman.