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article imageOp-Ed: France has lost its war against American cultural domination

By Michael Cosgrove     Nov 22, 2010 in Entertainment
Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to bury the acrimonious national identity debate he initiated was partly based on the perception that the French are not ready for it. This refusal to consider what France is has cost the country dearly in cultural terms.
‘Desperate Housewives’, ‘Avatar’, ‘Lady Gaga’, ‘Disney’, those are just a few examples taken from the many examples of American popular culture which are just as popular here in France as they are in the United States. Even literature – an artistic discipline for which the French used to think they held the copyright for excellence – has been swamped by translations of American novels and other English-language books.
From TV to the cinema, art to music, dress codes to eating habits (did you know that France eats more McDonalds pro rata than any other nation on earth?) French resistance to all things Anglo-Saxon in culture has crumbled and the France of Zola and the Louvre is now sullenly resigned to following the American example.
The reasons for this debacle are to be found in the fact that France refuses to see what is happening within its borders and that French political and cultural elites have always believed that they could legislate foreign culture out of existence as a threatening force.
The national identity debate was initiated by President Nicolas Sarkozy after his election in 2007 and it was designed to evaluate and define the country’s values as well as what ‘being French’ means. It caused a storm of controversy, with its opponents claiming that it was racist in tone and that it stigmatized immigrants.
Immigration has always been a taboo subject in France, which is why nobody pays any more than lip service to the idea of successfully integrating immigrants into French society. This attitude is founded upon the institutionalized belief that integration means giving up one’s own cultural assets and practices.
The debate became bogged down in controversy and the question of what French culture is was never considered and Sarkozy mercifully killed the debate off last week and fired Immigration minister Eric Besson because of the impasse, saying that it had caused too many “misunderstandings.” Besson had been in charge of implementing the national identity debate.
That he did so is a tacit admission that France is incapable of looking at itself in the mirror to see what it is and by extension so consider what the country represents. This long-standing aversion to reinventing itself has cost France dearly in cultural terms.
To the French, the notion of ‘French culture’ means France itself, its institutions, its past, its language and the traditions created and cultivated by those of traditional French origins. French culture has always been synonymous with the state, which pays for much artistic production via taxes. This static and ‘preservist’ view of culture and what it consists of is one of the reasons which means that France has had enormous problems with its efforts to integrate immigrants compared to countries like the United States.
French insistence on looking inwards and considering culture as being representative of the past is what led to the invention of the ‘French cultural exception.’ This concept put French opposition to what it calls American “cultural hegemony” into a legal context and the result was that France imposed higher tariffs and taxes on foreign (read American) cultural products such as films and music and also imposed import quotas and limits on how many American films and songs could be shown and broad-casted in France. America complained that the law broke the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and as such was illegal.
But America needn’t have worried, because although France succeeded in limiting American cultural imports it didn’t feel that it had to improve its own offer to the world, thus shooting itself in the foot. French artistic and cultural production quality is now at an all-time low due to its refusal to come to terms with the realities of the modern world. French culture is still extremely nombrilist in nature and it has become a dusty and pompous reminder of past French glory.
America on the other hand imposes no state control over artistic output, which is driven by private investment. American artistic endeavors are the very reflection of the country’s diverse ethnic origins. The melting pot is preferred to maintaining a passeist status quo based on nationalist ideas of what a country is. American culture renews itself as the years go by.
And that goes a long way to explaining why French culture is a moribund force today.
I remember spending an evening with friends a while back, one of whom is an American lady. A French friend observed that “America has no culture.” My American friend bounced back with “You mean past culture à-la-française? What do you mean we don’t have culture? We are culture. We are living culture. What good is dead culture? That’s called history. We are the future. The future of culture."
Call that brash and arrogant if you will, but she was right.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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