Who do Cannes’ heads answer to?

That depends on...

PARIS — When Cannes dropped the word “international” from its title a few years back, no one questioned the fest’s global reach — it will showcase films from more than 30 countries this year. But behind the scenes the venerable Gallic fest remains a fundamentally French organization.

French men and, to a lesser extent, women, have always been at the fest’s helm. It’s hard to imagine Cannes hiring an outsider to manage its affairs, as Venice did when it recruited German Moritz de Hadeln a few years ago.

For good measure, the French state — via the Culture Ministry — and the festival’s near all-Gallic board of administration are there to ensure that the nonprofit festival remains forever French.

Apart from one foreign member, Spaniard Andres Vicente Gomez (a producer and also head of international film fests org FIAPF), the board’s 30-odd members come from a dizzying array of Gallic industry orgs, government and regional authority reps and even the Communist-leaning CGT showbiz union.

“My organization has been involved since Cannes began,” says CGT rep Jean Voirin, describing the festival’s association status as “a particularly French kind of organization that is a part of our culture and our history.”

The board meets four or five times a year, one of those gatherings taking place during the first weekend of the festival, inside the Palais des Festivals.

“We talk about how opening night went and other matters that might come up regarding the ongoing festival,” says Voirin.

Earlier in the year, the board also gets a say-so on such matters as the short list for jury president, placing suggested names in order of preference, and the festival poster.

“A couple of years ago they came up with a poster that was really awful and the board nixed it,” recalls another member.

But when push comes to shove, between the Culture Minister, the board and Cannes prexy Gilles Jacob, who really calls the shots?

That all depends.

In times of peace, the French state and the board tend to leave well alone, allowing Jacob, artistic director Thierry Fremaux and managing director Catherine Demier to run the festival.

“Gilles Jacob is the captain onboard that ship,” says one member who would only speak under anonymity. That person points out no one raised an eyebrow when Jacob hired and then fired Olivier Barot, who for six months was in training to take over as artistic director, nor later when he went on to appoint Fremaux.

Per the same source, meetings tend to last no more than an hour: “It is very rapid, with a very precise agenda, and Jacob is very methodical, and there’s not a lot of discussion.”

“Cannes is autocratic, the board is a formality,” says a former member. “Because its members come from so many sectors of the industry with competing interests, it is too divided to put up much resistance.”

However, the board does appoint or renew the contracts of Jacob, Fremaux, et al. Although not very inclined to rock the boat, the board has asserted itself in the past, sending prexy Robert Fabre Le Bret into what it deemed to be overdue retirement.

There was also a scuffle over Jacob’s proposed membership of the Vivendi board a few years ago, following the death of incumbent Daniel Toscan du Plantier. “Everyone was terribly diplomatic about it but said firmly that it wasn’t a good idea. Jacob took it badly because he is rarely called to order like that,” recalls an attendee.

At 76, and with nearly 30 years under his belt at the festival, Jacob is at an age when questions are being raised about his eventual departure as topper, but late last year the board renewed his contract for another three years, through the end of the festival’s 2009 edition.

“It was put to members that Jacob needed another three years to train Demier, who only took over from Veronique Cayla last year,” recalls one rep.

Members also feel that, since Toscan du Plantier’s death, no other really suitable candidate for Jacob’s succession has emerged.

Meanwhile the view on Fremaux is that, despite earlier teething problems, he is “safely ensconced as artistic director, unless there is a major slip-up.”

Journalist Michel Pascal, author of “Cannes: Shouts and Murmurs” comments: “They’ve only really had three presidents in 60 years. Depending on how you look at it, Cannes is either too set in its ways, or, compared with other international festivals, it is extraordinarily stable.”