The French state has launched its latest battle against change and reality with an attack on Amazon, with Aurélie Filippetti, the Minister for Culture and Communication in the embattled government of President Francois Hollande, castigating the U.S. giant for “dumping” in France. And tellingly, she had to use the Anglicism for the practice, despite endless initiatives from her own department and elsewhere to stamp out Franglais in France. Labeling Amazon the “destroyer” of bookshops, Filippetti claimed that the company abuses its position to artificially lower book prices to create a situation of quasi-monopoly, only to raise them again once competition is extinguished.
The positive aspects of this program, which she announced at National Theatre of Bordeaux, include €9 million of state aid for French bookstores, with €2 million from central funds and the rest from French publishers, partly to finance modernization of booksellers and moves to put their sales online. Filippetti, who has spoken out in the past in favor of independent bookshops as the “lungs” of French cities, has also stood behind a proposed one percent tax on Internet-compatible devices with revenues to be funneled to French cultural industries in a bid to preserve the “French exception” and promote cultural production.
Personally, I’ve no problem with bids to protect independent booksellers, though I suspect that major French companies like the huge book and media retail chain Fnac will be the likelier beneficiaries of Filippetti’s Amazonian crusade against Amazon.
And, leaving aside the cheap anti-Americanism of a troubled and very unpopular government, Amazon’s monopolistic position in both print and online book distribution deserves close scrutiny, although we largely have the short-sighted greed and selfishness of traditional publishers and book chains to thank for that. But in the French context, I’m more afraid of a bigger, more absolute monopoly—the French state, which is overly present in almost every aspect of national life, to the detriment of almost every other institution.
France certainly has a culture worth protecting and promoting—its intellectual and artistic prestige is vast. And the preservation of linguistic and cultural difference and diversity across Europe is an absolute, urgent priority. But state power is the last, worst instrument to achieve that, not least because it tends to weaken and emasculate the very social and cultural bodies it is supposed to protect. The heavy hand of the French state has lain on the French language and French culture for decades, and both are still in decline. Could there be a connection?
France’s demonstrations against gay marriage betray a conservative, inward-looking and insecure society, hostile to change and, above all, poorly led. A recent Pew Research opinion survey found that “no European country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France.”
Hard not to conclude that Filippetti’s words and deeds are not part of the solution, but part of the problem.