The death of French culture: How France lags US, Britain and Germany

How France lags behind the United States, Britain, and Germany in the exporting of its modern culture. America has Hollywood, Britain has music, but what does France have? Even France's supposedly great movie industry may make more films than the British, though the British spend more money on making films than any other country except the United States. New movie "The Golden Compass" is an American/British co-production. But what's France got?

The Death of French Culture

Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2007 By DON MORRISON/PARIS
TIME magazine

Illustration for TIME by Jonathan Burton

First, some facts and figures of how France lags:

% of public sales of contemporary art by auction houses:
United States: 50%
Britain: 30%
France: 8%

The top French artist on the ArtPrice study of the 2006 contemporary-art market was Robert Combas, who commanded $7,500 per work. The top European artist, Britain's Damien Hirst, sold for an average of $180,000.

Today, Americans and Brits dominate the pop scene. Though the French music industry sold $1.7 billion worth of recordings and downloads last year, few performers are famous outside the country. Quick: name a French pop star who isn't Johnny Hallyday.

The days grow short. A cold wind stirs the fallen leaves, and some mornings the vineyards are daubed with frost. Yet all across France, life has begun anew: the 2007 harvest is in.

And what a harvest it has been. At least 727 new novels, up from 683 for last autumn's literary rentrée. Hundreds of new music albums and dozens of new films. Blockbuster art exhibitions at all the big museums. Fresh programs of concerts, operas and plays in the elegant halls and salles that grace French cities. Autumn means many things in many countries, but in France it signals the dawn of a new cultural year.

And nobody takes culture more seriously than the French. They subsidize it generously; they cosset it with quotas and tax breaks. French media give it vast amounts of airtime and column inches. Even fashion magazines carry serious book reviews, and the Nov. 5 announcement of the Prix Goncourt — one of more than 900 French literary prizes — was front-page news across the country. (It went to Gilles Leroy's novel Alabama Song.) Every French town of any size has its annual opera or theater festival, nearly every church its weekend organ or chamber-music recital.

There is one problem. All of these mighty oaks being felled in France's cultural forest make barely a sound in the wider world. Once admired for the dominating excellence of its writers, artists and musicians, France today is a wilting power in the global cultural marketplace. That is an especially sensitive issue right now, as a forceful new President, Nicolas Sarkozy, sets out to restore French standing in the world. When it comes to culture, he will have his work cut out for him.

Only a handful of the season's new novels will find a publisher outside France. Fewer than a dozen make it to the U.S. in a typical year, while about 30% of all fiction sold in France is translated from English. That's about the same percentage as in Germany, but there the total number of English translations has nearly halved in the past decade, while it's still growing in France. Earlier generations of French writers — from Molière, Hugo, Balzac and Flaubert to Proust, Sartre, Camus and Malraux — did not lack for an audience abroad. Indeed, France claims a dozen Nobel literature laureates — more than any other country — though the last one, Gao Xingjian in 2000, writes in Chinese.

France's movie industry, the world's largest a century ago, has yet to recapture its New Wave eminence of the 1960s, when directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were rewriting cinematic rules. France still churns out about 200 films a year, more than any other country in Europe. But most French films are amiable, low-budget trifles for the domestic market. American films account for nearly half the tickets sold in French cinemas. Though homegrown films have been catching up in recent years, the only vaguely French film to win U.S. box-office glory this year was the animated Ratatouille — oops, that was made in the U.S. by Pixar.

The Paris art scene, birthplace of Impressionism, Surrealism and other major -isms, has been supplanted, at least in commercial terms, by New York City and London. Auction houses in France today account for only about 8% of all public sales of contemporary art, calculates Alain Quemin, a researcher at France's University of Marne-La-Vallée, compared with 50% in the U.S. and 30% in Britain. In an annual calculation by the German magazine Capital, the U.S. and Germany each have four of the world's 10 most widely exposed artists; France has none. An ArtPrice study of the 2006 contemporary-art market found that works by the leading European figure — Britain's Damien Hirst — sold for an average of $180,000. The top French artist on the list, Robert Combas, commanded $7,500 per work.

France does have composers and conductors of international repute, but no equivalents of such 20th century giants as Debussy, Satie, Ravel and Milhaud. In popular music, French chanteurs and chanteuses such as Charles Trenet, Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf were once heard the world over. Today, Americans and Brits dominate the pop scene. Though the French music industry sold $1.7 billion worth of recordings and downloads last year, few performers are famous outside the country. Quick: name a French pop star who isn't Johnny Hallyday.

France's diminished cultural profile would be just another interesting national crotchet — like Italy's low birthrate, or Russia's fondness for vodka — if France weren't France. This is a country where promoting cultural influence has been national policy for centuries, where controversial philosophers and showy new museums are symbols of pride and patriotism.

Moreover, France has led the charge for a "cultural exception" that would allow governments to keep out foreign entertainment products while subsidizing their own.

French officials, who believe such protectionism is essential for saving cultural diversity from the Hollywood juggernaut, once condemned Steven Spielberg's 1993 Jurassic Park as a "threat to French identity." They succeeded in enshrining the "cultural exception" concept in a 2005 UNESCO agreement, and regularly fight for it in international trade negotiations.

Accentuate the positive

In addition, France has long assigned itself a "civilizing mission" to improve allies and colonies alike. In 2005, the government even ordered high schools in France to teach "the positive role" of French colonialism, i.e. uplifting the natives. (The decree was later rescinded.) Like a certain other nation whose founding principles sprang from the 18th century Enlightenment, France is not shy about its values. As Sarkozy recently observed: "In the United States and France, we think our ideas are destined to illuminate the world."

Sarkozy is eager to pursue that destiny. The new President has pledged to bolster not just France's economy, work ethic and diplomatic standing — he has also promised to "modernize and deepen the cultural activity of France." Details are sketchy, but the government has already proposed an end to admission charges at museums and, while cutting budgets elsewhere, hiked the Culture Ministry's by 3.2%, to $11 billion.

Whether such efforts will have much impact on foreign perception is another matter. In a September poll of 1,310 Americans for Le Figaro magazine, only 20% considered culture to be a domain in which France excels, far behind cuisine. Domestic expectations are low as well. Many French believe the country and its culture have been in decline since — pick a date: 1940 and the humiliating German occupation; 1954, the start of the divisive Algerian conflict; or 1968, the revolutionary year which conservatives like Sarkozy say brought France under the sway of a new, more casual generation that has undermined standards of education and deportment.

For French of all political colors, déclinisme has been a hot topic in recent years.

Bookstores are full of jeremiads like France is Falling, The Great Waste, The War of the Two Frances and The Middle Class Adrift. Talk-show guests and opinion columnists decry France's fading fortunes, and even the French rugby team's failure at the World Cup — held in France this year — was chewed over as an index of national decay. But most of those laments involve the economy, and Sarkozy's ascension was due largely to his promise to attend to them.

Cultural decline is a more difficult failing to assess — and address. Traditionally a province of the right, it speaks to the nostalgia of some French for the more rigorous, hierarchical society of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Paradoxically, that starchy era inspired much of France's subsequent cultural vitality. "A lot of French artists were created in opposition to the education system," says Christophe Boïcos, a Paris art lecturer and gallery owner.

"Romantics, Impressionists, Modernists — they were rebels against the academic standards of their day. But those standards were quite high and contributed to the impressive quality of the artists who rebelled against them."

The taint of talkiness

Quality, of course, is in the eye of the beholder — as is the very meaning of culture. The term originally referred to the growing of things, as in agriculture. Eventually it came to embrace the cultivation of art, music, poetry and other "high-culture" pursuits of a high-minded élite. In modern times, anthropologists and sociologists have broadened the term to embrace the "low-culture" enthusiasms of the masses, as well as caste systems, burial customs and other behavior.

The French like to have it all ways. Their government spends 1.5% of GDP supporting a wide array of cultural and recreational activities (vs. only 0.7% for Germany, 0.5% for the U.K. and 0.3% for the U.S.). The Culture Ministry, with its 11,200 employees, lavishes money on such "high-culture" mainstays as museums, opera houses and theater festivals.

But the ministry also appointed a Minister for Rock 'n' Roll in the 1980s to help France compete against the Anglo-Saxons (unsuccessfully). Likewise, parliament in 2005 voted to designate foie gras as a protection-worthy part of the nation's cultural heritage.

Cultural subsidies in France are ubiquitous. Producers of just about any nonpornographic movie can get an advance from the government against box-office receipts (most loans are never fully repaid). Proceeds from an 11% tax on cinema tickets are plowed back into subsidies. Canal Plus, the country's leading pay-TV channel, must spend 20% of its revenues buying rights to French movies. By law, 40% of shows on TV and music on radio must be French. Separate quotas govern prime-time hours to ensure that French programming is not relegated to the middle of the night. The government provides special tax breaks for freelance workers in the performing arts. Painters and sculptors can get subsidized studio space. The state also runs a shadow program out of the Foreign Ministry that goes far beyond the cultural efforts of other major countries. France sends planeloads of artists, performers and their works abroad, and it subsidizes 148 cultural groups, 26 research centers and 176 archaeological digs overseas.

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Blame Sarkozy!!
Logic 7
Germany and france, beat britains regarding music, actually there is nothing good that is coming from britains, unless you listen to crappy pop music, but again who really cares about that music.

Actually there is nothing good coming from loyalist country, you know why?, it is built in your mentality, a mentality of spectators, not creators.

For exemple:

All musical recording software were invented in germany, usa and france, including sequencer, software instrument, plugs ins, and so on.
I'v heard that Britian leads the world in congenital idiots. I don't know if it's true but Tony Blair and his buddy Brown don't do anything to counter the claim. Maybe it isn't true, but if you listened to Tony Blair and still voted for him there might be something there.
I'v heard that Britian leads the world in congenital idiots. I don't know if it's true but Tony Blair and his buddy Brown don't do anything to counter the claim. Maybe it isn't true, but if you listened to Tony Blair and still voted for him well you know how wild rummors like this gain a little wieght, there might be something to it. I hope not, they have a job to do, keeping the Islamic Marines and thier landing assault fleets from ever touching British soil. Nelsons decendants are a proud people. You remember Nelson don't you Logic 7 he destroyed the Martian fleet at Trafalgar.