As the Council is poised to give the Commission a mandate to negotiate an ambitious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Mrs Filipetti, in her capacity as France’s Culture minister, made this letter public:

Its title leaves no doubt that France is spearheading the cultural exception vs free market.

What’s wrong with the free market ?

The thrust of it confirms decades-old positions in the face of a radically changed environment. In the name of “a conviction of political and philosophical nature”, France warns against “letting culture go to the blind laws of the market”. As much of a paradox as it might sound coming from the birthplace of the revolution of 1789 that shook the world, the following political and philosophical conviction seems to prevail in today’s France, at least when it comes to culture: markets being led by people (Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”) cannot be right whereas governments being led by an elite cannot err. Contrary to the layman’s take of democracy, people can be wrong not only on casting their vote occasionally but even on wielding their checkbook on a daily basis. Hence the need for Big Brother to step in: he knows which movie is good for you. At least those businesses charged with building profiles about you think they know you better than you do based on your documented behaviour. Some States don’t even have to go through this number crunching to prescribe your cultural diet.

Either you buy this pitch or you don’t. If you do, you have to wonder why TTIP negotiators on both sides of the table would not deserve the trust of France by the mere virtue of being State executives. Furthermore, those with a blind faith in France’s “most effective cultural policies” should be the last to shun a real-life test of their best weapons. Aren’t all diplomats and trade officials keen to borrow from effective policies when they spot one?

What if free does not necessarily mean wrong?

If you don’t, you won’t be wasting your time delving further into the minister’s line of reasoning.

The minister calls for “strong regulation”. If she means economic regulation, that’s what the WTO is about: rule-based international trade. Why should the EU seek a continuing suspension of WTO rules when it comes to culture? If Mrs Filipetti means regulating culture itself with a hand set free from rule-based trade, that’s scary. Regulating culture means keeping liberty in check somehow, the freedom creators need for a nation’s culture to blossom. Who regulates? States do. Regulating culture therefore smacks of State culture, a concept reminiscent of Soviet rulers that digital technology – mainly satellite dishes and VCRs at the time – made no small contribution to eradicate. Does France plan to take the whole EU back to the painful experience of its most recent members? This may be mere inadvertence due to a genuine belief that “strong regulation makes for the widest range of cultural expression.” As long as it is approved by your government, that is… Readers will be forgiven for thinking that user generated content, not regulation, makes for the widest range of expression. This is at least the intuitive feeling of anybody who gets online: world cultures at your fingertips, your self-made production ready to take on the world instantly. Crediting regulation with the same effect on cultural diversity is much less intuitive, even debatable arguably.

The ubiquity of culture in the digital age – i.e. today

“The French have access to a wealth of cultural offering”, the minister proudly states. True, but is it thanks to the smart politics of cultural exception or is it a widespread benefit of digital technology rather than an exception, actually the experience of anyone given access to the Internet anytime anywhere? How will the TTIP manage to reduce the cultural choice of the French people? Will it not increase the chances of French producers to find new outlets instead, unless the French government wouldn’t trust the skills of EU trade negotiators? Actually the cultural exception was born of the alleged boycott of French movies by US theater owners. No trace is left of this charge: if it ever held water, the Internet has put paid to it. This too bodes well for an all-encompassing TTIP.

Why delay the bounty ?

It may look like a detail, but the mere suggestion that the whole EU and the US should hold their breath until France has gone through a thorough assessment of the Lescure report is not. Other sources are worth considering, even though they might jar with the minister’s take of the cultural exception: a searing report from Senator Plancade, for instance, concludes that the system seems to be made to keep alive a very fragmented, elitist and failing army of incompetent film and TV professionals. Whatever the level of France’s internecine wars on it, why on earth should the people behind more than 50% of the world trade be taken hostage to a particular report that has been delayed more than once? Why on earth should they wait until the French debate on the Lescure recommendations is ready to morph into a European debate that will in turn inform the mandate of the Commission? Do we have the luxury of time?

Delaying the bonanza: a crime?

Ultimately, it is a matter of setting your priorities right, as would befit good government. Would you debate the colour of the walls on lying in an intensive care unit? We the people of Europe have been struggling with the most serious economic crisis ever since the EU was created. Should we let our elites forego the 13 million new jobs expected from TTIP on both sides of the Atlantic or the 0.5% boost to the EU’s annual economic output estimated by trade officials? Being government people, they can’t be wrong, can they? It is fine for a Culture minister to care about “a rich and diverse cinema” and to advocate all steps she thinks will support this goal. It looks more intriguing that a whole government would pass the opportunity to apply the imperatives Mrs Filipetti assigns to French movies to the wider and more consequential public policy issue of growth, one that people dream should prove rich and diverse, especially job-wise. But it is not fine at all to have a whole cabinet and a President wield the threat of a veto in front of fellow Member States where unemployment among the 16-24 olds all too often exceeds 50%. If democracy is about government accountability, Council members should bear this principle in mind on addressing the TTIP today.

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