France's "Cultural Exception" Continued: Qatar and the French Cinema

A month back, I devoted a column to the defense of the "cultural exception" that France has mounted against the steamroller of the anarcho-capitalist concept of culture practiced by the United States.

Today, it is the same cultural exception that I wish to discuss, the same obligation to defend those unusual goods that are the works of the spirit, the same need, not only to preserve those works but also to develop the tools required to produce them, because they contribute so much to human dignity, to mankind's irreducible singularity, to our capacity to bind ourselves by law and by our word. But I would like to conduct that discussion on another ground and with reference to a danger that has scarcely been mentioned even though it is no less disturbing and no less offensive than that emanating from the United States. That is the menace posed to the future of the French cinema by a strange policy of the state of Qatar.

It's complicated, but I'll try to summarize.

The French film industry owes a share of its vitality to a law that requires the television networks to invest a nonnegligible share of their resources in production.

One of the pillars of that system is Canal Plus, the economic model of which rests on its purchase of rights to rebroadcast major sports events, on the resulting flow of revenues from subscribers paying to watch their favorite teams, and on the reinvestment of this manna in the production of French (and foreign) films. The bottom line is that two-thirds of what we see each year on the big screen could not have been made but for the unlikely but happy alchemy that transforms World Cups and league championships into the works of Nanni Moretti, Michael Haneke, and Michel Hazanavicius.

Enter the Emirate of Qatar, which has got it in its head to buy, not only legendary buildings, luxury brands, and stakes in the major corporate pillars of the CAC 40 stock index, but also the very rights to rebroadcast those athletic contests that the whole world seems to want to see and which, the Qatari investment authorities believe, will contribute to the promotion of their image and glory.

And so it is that, operating through subsidiaries of Al-Jazeera, which is itself the product of a sovereign wealth fund of nearly unlimited resources, the Qataris are in a position, should they choose to do so, to set their sights on the most prestigious sports rights, to raise the level of bidding to new heights that no ordinary business constrained by the usual imperatives of profitability could hope to reach, and thereby to deprive a television network that is the lifeblood of the French cinema of its premier product and thus of its top source of revenue and its ability to invest in new film productions.

The network's management has tried to draw attention to this unequal and truly unprecedented duel with a rival that is able to draw on the limitless fortune of a mega-rich state.

Canal Plus has alerted the French government of the danger of yielding this quintessentially sovereign sector -- that of the production of images -- not to the law of competition but to its opposite: to noncompetition as dictated by an emirate governed solely by the caprice of a neofeudal oligarchy.

Fearing the worst, the network has taken the further step of filing suit for unfair competition with a French commercial court, which will formally accept the case this Thursday, July 25. This will at least bring the matter into public view.

Obviously, I do not believe that the Qatari authorities are motivated by a Machiavellian urge to destroy French culture.

Moreover, I reject and detest the Qatar bashers who find the emirate's diabolical hand in everything from the fire at the Hôtel Lambert to the financing of international terrorism.

A month ago I addressed my column to "an American friend." In the same way, and with no irony whatsoever, I would address this one to a Qatari friend. I have never visited Doha, have never participated in one of those annual circuses that pull in the big names of politics and, occasionally, thought, but there was one case -- the war in Libya -- where I forged bonds of trust and confidence with Qataris who seemed, like people everywhere else in the Islamic world, torn between two worlds: on the one hand, the rigors of Wahhabism that serves as a poor form of cement for a society in which, as in ancient Athens, a minority of citizens holds the power of life and death over a majority made up of metics and slaves; and, on the other, those aspirants to Solon's mantle who dream of a modern Qatar -- perhaps, one day, even a democratic Qatar -- to whom it would be unfair to give the benefit of the doubt by denying, a priori, their good faith.

But even with friends, one has differences.

And this particular difference is much too serious to be treated lightly.

The cinema is culture.

Culture is the spirit, not of a people, exactly, but of a republic.

So here is a warning to those who -- whether out of narrow self-interest, blindness, or because it is easier to drift down the well-marked path of Pavlovian anti-Americanism -- forget that, in this area at any rate, little Doha can do just as much damage as big, bad Washington.

If we are going to defend the cultural exception, we have to do it consistently -- or not at all.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy