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Culture Clash : New Turner Network Is Galling the French

September 25, 1993|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — The French have adored the films of Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the theaters and on television. And, truth be told, they haven't really minded having Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck puttering around Euro Disney on the outskirts of this capital.

But enough is enough. In what is rapidly becoming an emotional new front in the U.S.-Europe trade war, France has decided to draw the line at Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear and Bugs Bunny.

The government is threatening to fine cable companies and revoke broadcast licenses for carrying Ted Turner's new European satellite channel, London-based TNT & Cartoon Network.

The reason: The 24-hour network, which premiered last week, carries only vintage cartoons and Hollywood classics from Turner's library. And almost all of them, of course, are American-made.

"We must fight back against this American aggression," declared Jack Lang, France's former culture minister and, although a Socialist, a strong supporter of the new conservative government's cultural protectionism. "It is intolerable that certain North American audiovisual groups shamelessly colonize our countries and bombard our continent with exclusively American images."

In their efforts to halt the invasion, French officials are trying to persuade other European nations to unite against what they see as American cultural brinkmanship. Belgium has already joined France by prohibiting cable operators from carrying Turner's new network.

Turner, whose Cable News Network reaches 1 million French homes on cable, blamed "a misunderstanding" and said he was talking with French officials.

"We like your country," Turner told the newspaper Le Figaro this week. But, turning the knife, he thanked them for the "free publicity" the controversy had generated. "Without them, the launching of our new channel would have passed unnoticed," he said.

In a British interview, Turner said the French have "this bee in their bonnet about French culture."

The TNT explosion comes amid growing controversy in Europe over talks, under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, to lower barriers to international trade. American and European Community negotiators have tentatively agreed on guidelines for farm trade, under which the community's dozen nations will cut subsidized farm exports by 21% over the next six years.

The French government, under pressure from the nation's dwindling number of farmers, now wants that pact renegotiated. Last week, militant farmers in Paris blockaded highways into the city, burning hay and manure, to protest the accord; recent public opinion polls indicate that 78% of the French people sympathize with the cause.

Farm and trade ministers meeting in Brussels agreed after 12 acrimonious hours of debate Monday to ask the Americans to reopen discussions on the farm pact--but stopped short of acceding to French demands for a complete renegotiation of the deal.

The issue remains unsettled. President Clinton has warned the EC not to try to reopen the farm agreement. Even if modifications are made, no one knows whether France's 1 million farmers, the most of any country in the EC, will be satisfied.

The latest cultural skirmish is one of the brush fires started by the broader trade talks, which the United States hopes to use to force European audiovisual markets to open more to American entertainment. It reflects growing alarm in France over the transatlantic invasion of films and TV shows.

American films account for more than 60% of box office revenue in French theaters, while French films account for a paltry half-percent of the American market.

And the country is awash in publicity for "Jurassic Park," the Spielberg film that opens next month in 450 French theaters.

French Communications Minister Alain Carignon--who made the decision to bar Turner's new network, meaning it now will reach only the 100,000 French viewers with satellite dishes--argued at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, last week that the audiovisual industry should be excluded from the world trade talks.

"Culture can't be considered just another type of merchandise," said Carignon, who was joined by several of France's film stars and directors. "It's a question of creativity and our cultural heritage."

On Friday, French Culture Minister Jacques Toubon echoed that, telling European Commission President Jacques Delors that Europe's cinema and audiovisual industries must be excluded from GATT talks to protect their survival.

Gerard Depardieu, France's best-known actor and a regular in Hollywood films, supports the government's crusade. "European cinema is in danger of dying," Depardieu told the European Parliament.

"My fight isn't anti-American, it's anti-industrial," Depardieu said. "The movie industry in the (United States) is like a war machine."

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