On 13 June, France’s leading evening daily published a letter from the Culture Minister addressing the cultural exception in the perspective of the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) ( ). On 18 June, the same newspaper was at it again with an editorial lambasting the President of the Commission for being “neither loyal nor respectful” to the Council. The inconvenient truth is that neither of these developments will help shore up the repute of the French government or that of the French press on the international scene.

No lesson learned from the past

The editorial rants and raves at President Barroso for having shattered the EU’s unity. Never mind that the same paper has thoroughly reported the marked differences prevailing in the Council. Never mind that US embassies across Europe have been able to document in detail the diversity of views held in each and every capital. Spared this blinding truth, readers are given to understand that, had Mr Barroso not chosen to ignore Article 4-3 of the Lisbon treaty, the US government would accept that the EU – unanimously turning uniformity, this cultural nuisance, into political bliss – is perfectly aligned behind the French cultural banner. Not only do US negotiators know better but you would expect a top broadsheet to provide reliable information, not to pull the wool over our eyes. For all the reporting of the unfortunate ACTA debacle, the lesson that obfuscation does no longer pay off in the digital era proves hard to sink in.

Self-inflicted vulnerability

Seasoned trade negotiators would make it a point to show their most valuable hand only at the last minute lest they would allow the other party to see through their game and thus give them an edge. Unless a smart EU team would plan to decoy their counter-parts into taking in earnest a policy which, having long lapsed past its sell-by date, qualifies for early bargaining… This might explain the door left open by Commissioner de Gucht to future strategic trade-offs.

Jettisoning home-made luminaries…

More seriously, this searing editorial following hot on the heels of the Minister’s letter thereby holds the ironic twist of a pot calling the kettle black. It betrays the self-righteousness of a nation that cannot possibly err and that will silence any dissenting voice. Actually the French should be glad that Ms Filipetti is not in charge of Education as her letter of June 13th would land in the hands of students at the risk of having them infer that literature and law abidance are all things of the past:

Ms Filipetti cannot put up with the “blind laws” that govern markets: they “bring about uniformity, iron out differences and simplify in order to please the majority”.

The broadside fired at market economy by France’s top authority on Culture rides roughshod over a glaring beacon of the French cultural legacy to the world, Molière. Indeed, in “La critique de l’Ecole des femmes”, Dorante exclaims: “Rules made by those people in power are successful at burdening the ignorant and making our heads spin. I wonder though if the ultimate rule of all is not to please the public”. Not one to let State diktats gag his creative skills, Molière puts these words in Dorante’s mouth: “If plays that go by the rules flop, if plays that ignore the rules make a hit, it follows that the rules must be flawed”. Who could think of a better articulated creed that culture is meant for the people?

Yet Molière is not an isolated case: Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo all share a signature knack of running foul of the established order. Subsidies have therefore no part in their global fame, entirely built on their unparalleled talent to strike a chord with the “whole form of human condition embedded in each of us”, as Montaigne had put it long before.

And we switched from this natural flow of talent-driven cultural expansion to cultural exception of Malthusian inspiration precisely at a time when digital technology was increasing exponentially the number of people such gifted authors can reach out to and touch directly! Cultural elites take exception to this major inroad into their quality-control remit: digital technology reveals the grassroots, popular form of culture long stifled or crowded out by one selected by Paris-based happy few for France-dwelling happy few. Granted, movie-making requires an exponentially higher investment than book-publishing, a compelling reason why the cultural exception boils down to sheer industrial policy in the disguise of cultural crutches. It follows that the huge and expanding audiovisual business does qualify for rules-based international trade. It belongs to the TTIP negotiating table as much as coastal shipping or financial services do.

… and founding ethical principles in one swoop

Alas, letting common sense prevail would not take the EU-US negotiations very far anyway as France’s Culture Minister argues in the same breath that “signing up an agreement with the United States on these topics boils down to having one’s hands tied”. What’s wrong with governments deliberately committing to abide by rules they have crafted themselves? Doesn’t their ability to make commitments and to keep up with those provide the very foundation of international relations – and that of domestic law and order as well, should you substitute governments with individuals in the above proposition?

Should the values that the French Republic has been ingraining for generations on end in the young brains entrusted to its school system be revisited lest the statements of its current leaders would appear to jar with the ethical side of the French legacy? Or should other Europeans stick to their values while French leaders having seemingly lost compass vie with rogue States and online pirates for condoning those dodging laws and treaties?

Taking the long view that befits policy makers

It is the prerogative of the French government to address these questions whose answer will inform the way the French youth will take on the world. This is taking the long view as far as France is concerned.

For Europe, taking the long view means to refrain from delving into whether or not President Barroso has breached protocol. He may well be legally misplaced and politically correct at once. The “political victory” hailed by the editorial “as a result of France imposing its views” to fellow Member States may prove as inward-looking as pyrrhic a triumph that will put EU negotiators on a diet of humble pie as a result of this unnecessary waste of political capital.

No one will deny President Barroso a longstanding experience of commitments made and upheld. No one will cry foul if, vested with the responsibility to help jump-start a job-rich recovery across Europe, he leaves no stone unturned to tap sources of growth and employment and if he gives innovative tools precedence over reactionary policies to this effect. Who knows, President Barroso may even have borrowed a few leaves from Molière and his kin regarding what a true people’s culture looks like…

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