By Agnès Poirier (THE GUARDIAN, 05/12/07):
Forget winning a ticket to the Superbowl, sleeping with Paris Hilton or getting an Oscar: for some Americans, there is nothing more titillating than the idea of the end of France. It pops up regularly on the cover of serious and prestigious publications, such as Time magazine’s latest European edition. This week, a Marcel Marceau double looks down sadly at a dying flower under a damning revelation in bold black letters: The Death of French Culture.
“The end of France” phantasmagoria almost always presents itself the same way: long investigations crammed with figures, statistics, and quotes from disgruntled and self-hating Frenchmen backed by as many triumphant Americans. Often arguments are so circumvolutory that they land on their head. To say that “France has produced this autumn 727 new novels, hundreds of new music albums and dozens of new films” is in fact to show the country’s cultural indigence. Simply because, you see, only a handful of these novels will reach American shores, there is no more Piaf and French films are too “tainted by talkiness”.
To make their case even stronger, American Inspector Clouseaus looking for the remnants of French culture through their magnifying glasses point to the high percentage of books translated from English in France’s bookshops. It is clear to them that if only a handful of French books are released in the US it’s because the rest are rubbish, and if the French have access to a large array of the latest Anglophone literature it’s because it is far superior.
It has never occurred to them that if only a handful of French novels are picked up for US rights, it may be because, silently, their country has barricaded itself behind walls and has lost interest in the outside world and, perhaps, other ways of thinking. In the US, 2.1% of all books published are translations, and, of this pitiful fraction the first foreign-language literature represented comes, well, from France. Same goes for foreign cinema releases in the US, with French films coming first of all foreign movies distributed there.
In France, 30% of all books published are translations, with a strong contingent of Anglophone authors. The reasons? The excellence of Anglophone literature as a whole and the curiosity of French readers for the outer world. In cinema, the French prove as eclectic an audience; they love a good American thriller as much as a three-hour drama by its latest enfant prodige, Abdelatif Kechiche. It’s called diversity, the opposite of chauvinism.
Usually, the case against France turns to the subject of subsidies which make French culture weak as “they ensure mediocrity”. Sure, French artists, if they can prove having worked for 507 hours in 10 consecutive months, are eligible to benefits which won’t force them to slave in bars at night while preparing for auditions during the day. This generous system may sustain a few mediocre artists but it allows most to perfect their craft. Besides, this public bonus, helped by quotas, is regularly dealt to foreign artists. Masterpieces by directors such as Krzysztof Kieslowski and the Coen brothers would never have reached world screens without these art subsidies sans frontières.
In the end, these investigations have little to do with the fantasised death of French culture; they merely show the American inability to distinguish art from entertainment, culture from industry. It also barely disguises the American bitterness at Unesco’s agreement two years ago, voted by a majority of 148 votes to two, on the right for any country “to protect and promote the cultural diversity of cultural expressions on their territory”.
Targeting French culture, rejoicing over its apparent decline and glossing over its obvious achievements is in fact taking aim at a much broader villain: dissidence.