The Endangered French

December 14, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles. -- Where you stand depends on where you sit. In Hollywood, President Clinton told film and television producers that some of their work was dangerous to the mental health of poor Americans. In Brussels, his trade representative, Mickey Kantor, was telling Europeans they have no right to say those same movies and programs are dangerous to their national survival.

After seven years of negotiations, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the world's free-trade constitution, stalled last week because of what we called the small-minded and greedy concerns of the French and their neighbors in the European Community. While the Japanese finally agreed to allow foreign rice into their stomachs, the French insisted that they were willing to go only so far in allowing American pop culture into their hearts and minds.

This is the problem:

American entertainment, truly popular in the sense that we will give consumers whatever they'll pay for, including gangsta rap, is the most irresistible (and cheapest) mind-stuffing on the planet. Even 20-year-old American television series -- ''Starsky & Hutch,'' for example -- can drive out the narrower cultures of smaller countries. Or, as we call them, markets.

That problem -- for them, not us -- has been dramatized by the government of France and its cultural and financial concerns over the fact that on any given night, 59 percent of French moviegoers are watching American films and half of French television viewers are watching American programs.

Those figures would be much higher if the government did not hold back American cultural imports with a 50 percent limit on the number of hours of American-made television programming and an 11 percent tax on foreign movies -- with $350 million in receipts from the ticket tariff being used to subsidize the French film industry. It is those taxes and quotas the United States demanded the French eliminate in the interest of free trade -- and in expanding the $1 billion-a-year trade surplus provided by the export of U.S. films, programs and music videos.

''We are not willing to sell out the rights of hard-working individuals to collect their royalties,'' said Mr. Kantor, stating the U.S. position. ''American producers and actors are not getting their full royalties.''

I'm sure. But, hoping I will not be called a traitor, I think there may actually be more to life than commerce. And I think the French are right. A nation is more than a market, and were I French or Dutch or Spanish, I might hesitate before sharing the whole American good-life package -- particularly if I suspected there just might be a link between the candid violence of U.S. entertainment and the real-life abduction of little girls in California and casual massacres on the Long Island Railroad.

''The real threat for us is that the U.S. is exporting its banal way of looking at violence,'' said Pascal Rogard, director of the French filmmakers' union. He and the union have an obvious self-interest in all this, but that does not mean he was wrong when he added, ''The whole U.S. marketing campaign is to sell rampant violence.''

That, unfortunately, is true. If you talk to American filmmakers, they will tell you that the only true universal culture-crossing entertainment is violent action-adventure -- the bloodier the better, the kind of stuff that doesn't need words in any language. Humor, romance, notions of nobility or avarice, even sex may or may not travel well across cultural boundaries, but action sells everywhere.

The power and charm of American images are awesome and that does create problems for other societies. The reaction can be unfair, as Mr. Kantor thinks of the French resistance, or comical, as was the Swedish banning of television ratings during the Cold War because that ''neutral'' country did not want to make public comparison of the number of Swedes watching ''Dallas'' on nights when it was up against such tempting communist fare as the Bulgarian National Dance Company.

French films, most of them, are not very exciting; many are just not very good. But they are French! And the French themselves still delight in heading for cafes afterward to talk about every scene and little movement. They do it now, however, in a country where one out of every four screens last week was showing the same movie, an American one, ''Jurassic Park'' by name.

I sympathize with the French men and women who find that last fact troubling. We Americans, after all, come from a society that goes to amazing lengths to preserve endangered species of little fish and owls. Well, the French are worried about an endangered species, too: themselves.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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