Culture honcho fights piracy while touting protection

Donnediue de Vabres gets funding from govt for the arts

PARIS — On a commercial flight to Marseilles, France’s Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres sips coffee from a plastic cup and snatches 40 winks before another busy day on his victory lap of France’s numerous arts festivals.

A year ago, this journey would have been unthinkable, as mass protests by striking showbiz workers halted the prestigious Avignon theater festival and disrupted cultural events all over the country.

The politically embarrassing dispute over cuts to unemployment benefits for those working in the arts helped speed outgoing Minister Jean Jacques Aillagon’s exit from the Ministry earlier this year.

But since taking office in March, Donnedieu de Vabres has calmed the dispute — for now — by launching a top-to-bottom rethink of the benefit system, and by securing roughly E80 million ($98.5 million) emergency government funding for those no longer eligible for benefits.

“I’m proud because I think that the conditions for a dialogue exist now. I think I have established a climate of trust,” says the minister, a strapping, youthful-looking 50 despite his formal dark-blue suit. “There’s a completely different atmosphere at the festivals this year.”

Unlike his predecessor, a man of culture lacking in political know-how, unmarried Donnedieu de Vabres is a savvy and ambitious career politician, a parliamentarian from a family whose members have held public office for generations. His uncle was the head of France’s equivalent of the Securities and Exchange Commission and his grandfather was France’s judge in the Nuremberg trials at the end of WWII.

As well as his pivotal role in resolving the showbiz dispute, Donnedieu de Vabres has also become a key player in French-led global efforts to combat music and movie piracy.

He repped the government at an anti-piracy pow-wow attended by Gallic and Hollywood movie industry honchos at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and will host a similar gathering at the Deauville Festival of American Film in September.

“There is a real understanding, a synergy, between the Americans and us,” asserts the minister.

The French are taking piracy more seriously than ever before, motivated in part by figures that suggest an estimated 16 million songs and one million movies are illegally downloaded in Gaul each day, four times as many as are acquired legally.

At a recent meeting, concerned parties thrashed out a three-point plan that will form the basis of a Gallic anti-piracy charter that could be published as soon as the end of the month.

The key components are tougher legislation to punish offenders, awareness-raising among pirates and potential pirates, and the rapid development of well-priced alternatives to illegal downloading.

“Today, you can do a lot with technology, says Donnedieu de Vabres. “Big record companies and film studios have to get their acts together to provide legal, paid-for services. It can work.”

While the sincerity of France’s desire to combat piracy is in no doubt, the French are more concerned about piracy’s harmful effects on “cultural diversity” than on, say, Madonna’s lost royalties, a point hammered home by Donnedieu de Vabres and other Gallic politicians at every opportunity.

Although works by well-known international artists are the most pirated, the argument goes that when big labels feel the squeeze, the smaller, least profitable — and most diverse — artists are the first to get the ax.

Once this becomes the principal point for fighting piracy, the French assert it follows that other efforts to preserve cultural diversity must be a good thing, too — including state subsidies for local artists.

For Donnedieu de Vabres fighting piracy and protecting culture — i.e. not deregulating — are two sides of the same coin.

“It is about making sure that each country can maintain its cultural and artistic expression, that these are not threatened, either by a marketplace that is too uniform and too constricting, or by the behavior of individuals,” the minister says.

While France takes the lead internationally on piracy, it is also continuing its clash with the U.S. over deregulation, and pushing for UNESCO to adopt a binding convention next year recognizing the right of countries to protect their own music, cinema and TV industries.

“The World Trade Organization must not be the regulator on matters of culture,” says Donnedieu de Vabres, adding: “I’m not against free exchange, but I’m in favor of everyone having something to exchange.”

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