Can Protectionism Ever Be Respectable? A Skeptic's Case for the Cultural Exception, with Special Reference to French Movies

By Delacroix, Jacques; Bornon, Julien | Independent Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Can Protectionism Ever Be Respectable? A Skeptic's Case for the Cultural Exception, with Special Reference to French Movies


Delacroix, Jacques, Bornon, Julien, Independent Review


The concept of a "cultural exception" to free trade seems to have arisen in large part as a result of a perceived impending American hegemony over trade in some cultural products in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1992 (unfortunately, one of the last years when the U.S. government provided such figures in convenient form), the value of U.S. exports of "communication and information" products was approximately the same as the value of its aerospace exports and more than twice the value of its electronics exports. Put another way, those exports--which exclude most royalty incomes earned abroad by U.S. economic actors--would have been enough to pay the country's considerable bill for imported clothing. Although the United States has nothing like a monopoly in this matter, this kind of export grew by approximately 10 percent per year in the 1980s (U.S. Census Bureau 1994) and at about the same pace since then. According to Vaidhyanathan, commerce in "cultural products" (not otherwise specified) accounted for more than 7 percent of U.S. gross domestic product in 1999, and "copyright-sensitive" industries' exports were worth approximately $300 per U.S. citizen (2001, B7). In 2000, the total payroll of "information industries," admittedly a miscellaneous category, stood at approximately one-third of the annual payroll of all U.S. manufacturing (U.S. Census Bureau 2002). Thus, it is possible to form the impression that Americans are increasingly paying their way in the global economy by exporting such products to the rest of the world (although, contrary to a widespread notion, the total value of U.S. manufactures kept growing during the 1990s). Motion pictures and television programs, because of both their visibility and their numbers, are prominent, and increasingly so, among these cultural exports.

Between 1970 and 1995, the U.S. share of worldwide production of motion pictures rose from less than 9 percent to approximately 45 percent (UNESCO 1995, 8-1). Consider all imports of movies worldwide: seventy-four countries provided the origin of their imports in the latest issue of the UNESCO Statistical Yearbook available to me (1999). Using only the figures given for the latest year for which they offered such figures (varying from country to country between 1991 and 1994) only four--Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, and Iran--had fewer than 30 percent of their imports originating in the United States; only sixteen had less than 50 percent U.S. imports. Notably, these twenty countries included neither communist Cuba nor culturally protectionist France. This situation still prevailed for the latter country in 2002, a banner year for the French cinema in terms of revenue (European Audiovisual Observatory [EAO] 2003, 39).

Faced with this U.S. export success, several countries, including Canada (and within it, separately, Quebec), Spain, the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, and France have responded in a statist mode by claiming the right to erect protectionist barriers in the name of an ill-defined "cultural exception" to the generally accepted idea that trade protectionism is bad because it impedes economic development. Accordingly, the concept of cultural exception gained recognition from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)--predecessor to the World Trade Organization (WTO)--meeting of 1994.

Among the growing list of such claimants, France has special interest because it has adopted the most active and most vocal policy of cultural protectionism (although it is seldom clearly articulated in its totality). Members of the French political elite are so serious about this matter that they have considered enshrining the cultural-exception principle in the French Constitution (Horwitch 2002), presumably to prevent future governments from ever putting it into question.

In this article, I am not considering French policy in all its complexity in order to arrive at a deep understanding of this particular case.

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Can Protectionism Ever Be Respectable? A Skeptic's Case for the Cultural Exception, with Special Reference to French Movies
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