Cultural Exception in France: Warden in a Globalizing Free Market

By Shi Nian

Table of content

1. Introduction

2. Background

3. Cultural Exception in France

3.1. Less ‘Cultural Industry’, More ‘Cultural Education’

3.2. All-round Governmental Support

4. Analysis

5. Conclusion

6. References

7. About the Author

1. Introduction

In the early 1990s, France first put forward the cultural exception policy in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations in response to the global ‘Americanization’, mainly manifested in the overwhelming influence of Hollywood blockbusters (Buchsbaum, 2017). The purpose of it was to regard cultural goods and services as an exception in international treaties, notably with the World Trade Organization (WTO) (Acheson and Maule, 2006), and protect and promote the country’s own production. To further foster cultural development, encourage local art creation, and carry forward French fine cultural traditions in the context of foreign cultures’ impact or even invasion, the French government vigorously develops national culture and art education. It has also promulgated a series of preferential policies for French companies in the audio-visual field, film, and music. Today, the conception of cultural exception has evolved into cultural diversity, aiming to promote the cultural symbiosis among different civilizations, and realize the long-term and sustainable development of multiculturalism. This entry introduces the background of the ‘cultural exception’ conception-formation, chronicles the relevant procedures of the French policy and education practice, analyzes the opportunities and challenges associated with cultural exception building, and explores the significance of cultural diversity in protecting French culture and arts and in helping the sustainable development of diverse civilizations in a global context.

2. Background

In 1992, during the final negotiations of the Uruguay Round of GATT, several countries expressed their concern about the inclusion of culture and its products as a general trade service, as this position can undermine culture’s role in freedom of expression (UNESCO, 2017). In 1993, France formally introduced the political and cultural concept of cultural exception in GATT (Hacker, 2007), emphasizing the intrinsic nature of culture beyond its trade value and the importance of national cultural independence, and resolutely opposed cultural free trade. France is also committed to calling on the European Union (EU) countries to reach an agreement, eventually limiting its domestic audio-visual products and films from the free trade principle (Beviglia-Zampetti, 2003). But this has been a phase achievement, as the term cultural exception has still been viewed as controversial in subsequent international negotiations.

At the end of the 1990s, the concept of cultural diversity entered into public consciousness, considering the sensitivity of the word ‘exception’ and its latent relevancy to protectionism. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) played a key role in international negotiations on ‘cultural diversity’ issues (Yao, 2014). On October 20, 2005, the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressionswas adopted by the 33rd session of the General Conference of UNESCO in Paris, which marked the formal inclusion of cultural diversity in the scope of international law and shifted the process from a matter of cultural appeal to international cultural policy practice (Li, 2010). Cultural diversity sees different cultures as learning from one other, and seeking common ground while preserving cultural identity and characteristics, which are believed to be a mainspring for the sustainable development for communities, peoples and nations (UNESCO, 2005).

3. Cultural Exception in France

3.1. Less ‘Cultural Industry’, More ‘Cultural Education’

The French people’s cultural identity is different from other countries. In the Middle Ages, France introduced the role of culture in “civic education” (M. Liu, 2014). It now expands the scope of ‘cultural influence’ to national quality, tradition, cohesion, image, and security (Li, 2010). Taking the multiple cultural connotations into account, the French government rarely employs the term ‘cultural industry’ (Li, 2010), which may belittle the value of culture in their view. Speaking of the education sector, the government has always attached great importance to students’ national language and traditional culture learning. Literature history, drama, poetry, and prose constitute the four pillars of the French language and culture curriculum in upper secondary schools (M. Liu, 2014). France also pays high attention to students’ art and culture education, whose curriculum contents are finalized by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture and Communication. Art and culture education has also been incorporated into the Ministry of Education’s National School Rebuilding Program, including art history courses, artistic practices, and exposure to works of art and artists. The history of art has been a required subject for graduation examination for French lower and upper secondary school students since 2008 (M. Liu, 2014).

In addition, a certain amount of government expenditure is devoted every year to the protection of traditional culture and national cultural education with the aim of maximizing the access of French students to art and culture within a framework of diversity. The French Museum is open to youth under the age of 26 (including international students) free of charge throughout the year, and to the public for free on the French Annual Heritage Day (M. Liu, 2014). Cultivating students’ literary and aesthetic taste is expected to enhance their awareness of national culture and cultural self-confidence. 

3.2. All-round governmental support

In western countries, cultural policy is generally divided into American and French-Canadian models(Li, 2010). The American model believes that culture is not to havea special status and should betreated asgeneral merchandise and follow the free market principleto achieve full competition. This model sees countries removing cultural barriers and openingtheircultural markets to international tradeand embracing the free trade of global cultural products as well as the free flow of capital. In opposition to this indiscriminate free trade policy of ‘cultural industry’, the French government has prioritized full support to the development of its domestic culture and arts. This policy tilt can be divided into two aspects from the macro performance: one is the multifarious financial support to their own cultural and artistic workers, the other is the relative restrictions on foreign cultural imports and quota management. Detailed information is as follows (Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, n/d):

- Funds are allocated to finance the National Center for Cinematography and Moving Image (CNC) which then redistributes these sums to help write, produce, broadcast or export French-language works.

- French radio stations must offer at least 40% of French songs (that is, works created or performed by French-speakers), half of which should be new talents.

- Television channels must broadcast European works (at least 60% of all works broadcast on their antenna), part of which must be made in the French language (at least 40% of all works).

- Video-on-demand sites must offer a significant proportion of French-language and European works.

- Television channels are, under certain conditions, required to finance part of the film production and expenditure in favor of the development of the audio-visual production sector.

4. Analysis

Cultural exception has been a controversial concept. Some believe that the policy defends national culture and arts under the dominant cultural background of the United States; others argue that it is protectionism in disguise under the name of cultural diversity, as the policy has more or less disturbed the operation of cultural competition. Due to the restrictions on foreign cultures, which can lead to relatively limited choices, it can be hard to determine whether the French people’s evaluation of their own culture and arts is based on true feeling. Although France, to a certain extent, limits the proliferation of what it regards as ‘vulgar’ culture which accepts  consumerism, it has also deprived its audience of freedom of choice. After all, what counts most in the ‘American model is not to support the national cultural and art products, but to provide all cultures with an equal platform (Li, 2010). To this extent, the all-embracing policy the United States has touted can be in line with the idea of cultural diversity.

However, can freedom of expression advocated by the American model really achieve free and open competitive market? Will the free trade of cultural products in the context of globalization itself lead to a symbiosis relation? Although there is no good or bad culture, cultural supremacy exists in the international context. If one blindly advocates free competition, it is likely to form a single cultural atmosphere, which will in reverse limit the freedom of public choice. Moreover, if the state follows the free market principle and accepts every foreign culture without independent reflection, the national and local cultural departments may cater without reserve to a culture with a high rate of return in the short-term. This can lead to excessive commercialization or homogeneity of culture, which can be unfavorable to the sustainable development of national culture and civilization. From another side, domestic emerging cultural and artistic workers may be at a disadvantage in such a competitive environment, discouraging people from the development of national culture and arts.

5. Conclusion

On the tide of globalization, the state of closure among countries has been broken. With the development of the Internet and new technology, cultural communication, cooperation, and competition have been growing at an unprecedented rate. In this context, the French cultural exception policy, regarding the culture and its services as different from general merchandise, helps free their domestic film, music, audio-visual products from the restrictions of the free trade system when facing the global Americanization trend. Other favorable policies, together with art and culture education, provide French national cultural undertakings a fertile soil, which can be conducive to talent training and enhancement of national consciousness and cultural self-confidence, so as to prevent possible cultural homogenization and even colonization. However, in today’s era where cultural exchange can be achieved through multiple channels, a firewall-like policy of turning aside all foreign cultures may no longer be that solid. The reliable and fundamental method is to constantly improve the innovation capacity and competitiveness of cultural products, if wanting to realize the evergreen development of national culture.

Meanwhile, with the increasing influence of the concept of cultural diversity, more and more countries are aware of the importance of defending the uniqueness of culture and arts, both through promoting national cultural education and sustainable development and advocating the implementation of a two-track policy between free market and culture. But countries should not take this as an excuse to block all foreign cultures. 

6. References

Acheson, K. & Maule, C. (2006). Chapter 33 Culture in International Trade. In Ginsburgh, V.A. & Throsby, D. (2006). Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture(pp. 1141-1182). North-Holland Publishing Co.

Beviglia-Zampetti, A. (2003). WTO Rules in the Audio-Visual Sector. HWWA-Reports, 229. Retrieved from

Buchsbaum,J. (2017). Exception Taken: How France Has Defied Hollywood's New World Order. Columbia University Press.

Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel. [Higher Audiovisual Council]. (n/d). Qu’appelle-t-on “l’exception culturelle”?. [What is the “Cultural Exception”?] Retrieved from

Hacker, V. (2007). L’Art délicat de la politique audiovisuelle de l’Union européenne: Entre tractations commerciales et politique culturelle. [The Delicate Art of the Audiovisual Policy of the European Union: Between Commercial Negotiations and Cultural Policy.] Dialogues européens Les politiques culturelles de l’Union [European DialoguesThe Cultural Policies of the Union] (pp. 24-36). Presses de la Sorbonne.

Li, N. (2010). Zi you shi chang hai shi wen hua li wai: mei guo yu fa-jia wen hua chan ye zheng ce bi jiao ji qi dui zhong guo de qi shi. [Free Market or Cultural Exception: Comparison of American and French-Canadian Cultural Industry Policy and Its Enlightenment to China.] Retrieved from

Liu, M. (2014). Qian yi fa guo chuan tong wen hua jiao yu. [Analysis of Tradition-Culture Education in France.] Comparative Education Review, 6, 23-27. Retrieved from

UNESCO. (2005). Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. Retrieved from

UNESCO. (2017) Creative Industries. Retrieved from

Yao, L. (2014). De l’exception à la diversité culturelle - la politique culturelle de France dans les négociations internationales 1993-2005. [From Cultural Exception to Cultural Diversity - the Cultural Policy of France in the International Negotiations 1993-2005.] Doctoral Thesis of Shanghai International Studies University, ISSN 1776-2669, Online ISSN 2260-6483.

About the Author

Shi Nian

MEd, The University of Hong Kong