the FrenchThe 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.

the frenchPersonally, 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.


  1. Yikes, your cheap anti-Frenchism and shilling for Amazon is disturbing to find on Teleread.

    The French critique of Amazon’s practices that Amzon uses to eliminate small retail that then drives people to have to use Amazon (I use Amazon, I’m not against Amazon, I sell my novels through Amazon), is the same set of complaints used here in the US in the ’90s/’00s by small book stores and other small retailers. You, sir, seem to be more intent on trashing France, and any non-Anglo-American economic model, than actually speaking to issues raised by Amazon’s business practices.

  2. I have a fair number of problems with Amazon’s business practices, actually, but many more problems with the French establishment’s cultural and sociopolitical practices. Would I have written in such detail about Mallarmé’s Un coup de Dés if I was into cheap anti-Frenchism? And I have one very simple problem with the French economic model: It doesn’t work. Look at the stats from Pew, listen to the Germans (hardly the most open and flexible society) urging the French to reform: I could go on. And on. Overdependence on a rigid and over-centralized dirigiste state makes for bad democratic politics, worse economics, and damaging cultural policies. Colbertian mercantilism didn’t give Louis XIV the means to defeat Marlborough, and its spiritual heirs are going to be equally helpless and detrimental to their own nation this time. (So you see I do know a *little* about France.) Is it any wonder that bureaucrats can’t engender culture that the rest of the world wants?

  3. Just yesterday a friend who manages events was approached by Amazon with an offer to handle her ticket sales. Instead of getting 100% of the sale price, by going with Amazon she’d only get 25%. How did that work?

    First, Amazon wanted her to give them a two-for-one offer– meaning two tickets for the price of one. Amazon would then use that to show their fans the low prices they offer. But notice what was really going to happen. Amazon wasn’t creating lower prices by operating more efficiently or by lowering their profit margin as many claim as the key to their success. Fully 100% of that price reduction was to come out of the pocket of the supplier, in this case those putting on the event.

    Second, Amazon wanted half the ticket price as their share. She has to cover all the costs of the event–publicity, facilities, performers and food–from her half. Amazon need only process the online sales, a trivial task, to get their half. She takes all the risks and pays almost all the costs. Amazon takes not just half the profit but half the gross income–for doing almost nothing.

    I’ll create some numbers to illustrate what that means. Suppose in previous years the event has sold tickets for $20 with 500 people attending and thus an income of $10,000 with 90% of that going to cover costs and 10% as profit. Those who come get a $9,000 event for $10,000. Not a bad deal given all the labor involved in organizing it.

    Now assume that Amazon is able to increase ticket sales by 50%. That’s being generous, since the facility actually limits the number who can attend. What’s the result?

    750 tickets are sold at what is effectively $10 each (that 2-for-1 discount). That’s $7500 of gross income, already a 25% reduction despite the greater sales. Amazon then takes half of that, leaving $3,750 to cover the cost of the event.

    Result: Amazon has made out like a bandit, getting $3,750 for merely processing 750 credit card transactions. Then there is the really bad news. That enjoyable $9,000 event has become, at best, a much more crowded $3,750 one. Those who come aren’t likely to come back next year, effectively killing an event that’s happened annually for about 20 years. In that role, Amazon is an enemy of popular culture.

    Keep in mind that my friend found it easy to turn down that offer. It was so stupid, one wonders how Amazon could offer it with a straight face. She has long handled her own publicity and sales and can continue to do so. But what if Amazon is able to create situations where they’re the only really effective way to sell tickets to events? That’s unlike with local events such as hers. But with book sales and particularly ebook sales in national and international markets, that could easily be the case.

    That explains why Amazon used a Seattle law firm located just blocks from their corporate headquarters to get the DOJ to attack the Big Six publishers and Apple. The Big Six are far better placed than independent authors and publishers to keep alive a viable alternative to Amazon in the ebook market, and Apple is now the most effective competitor to Amazon’s Kindle hardware and apps. From Amazon’s perspective, both must be stomped on.

    Those taxpayer-funded lawsuits have as their intended purpose making sure that at some point in the not too distant future you and I, whatever our size, must do business with Amazon and on the terms they set. And if a news story I read is true, one Amazon executive said precisely that at the Apple trial when he complained that Apple’s agency pricing deal with the Big Six threatened Amazon’s business schemes.

    That, I pointed out elsewhere, that is precisely what we need in the ebook market. We need every ebook retailer threatening the business plans of every other retailer. We need book publishers of all sizes making it difficult for ebook retailers to dictate terms. We never want to get into a situation, either hosting events or selling ebooks, where Amazon (or anyone else) is able to make us an offer we can’t refuse.

    When I lie awake at night pondering this business, I have two major concerns. First, I fret because Apple isn’t getting more aggressive about gaining ebook market share. Apparently, their upper-level executives rarely read books. Second, I fret that Amazon will do anything it takes to control that market. That makes it all to clear to me that it’s Amazon that poses the threat and not Apple.

    So, if the French want to make life harder for Amazon for almost any reason imaginable, I’m delighted. The more Amazon must fight the French government, the harder it will be for them to dominate the US market either directly or through proxies in Obama’s DOJ.

  4. It seems you are trying forcefully to merge two issues, one real (Amazon vs bookshops) and one perceived by you (the french govt. being too much involved in national life).

    I accept that your personal point of view is that less government is better, but that means in no way that it is the central issue of this particular case.

    Also about “France’s demonstrations against gay marriage betray a conservative, inward-looking and insecure society, hostile to change and, above all, poorly led.”

    I would rephrase that as “the Frenc govt. passed the law that allows same-sex marriages showing a great degree of modernity, and a bunch of conservative retrogrades, as is their right, manifested against it”.

  5. It seems to me that used book stores have equivalent claims to “Culture and Communication”. Where is her plan to save them? Why is she not castigating the publishers for not allowing the resale of e-books? Where is the plan to modernize the used book stores?

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