PARIS -- "The cultural exception is the best way to defend diversity in film-making," said a famous cinéaste at the close of the Cannes Film Festival last month.
If that coded phrase sounds like the predictable claim of a French filmmaker rising up in defense of an embattled national asset, think again. In fact, the remark was made by Steven Spielberg, master of the Hollywood blockbuster, who was the president of the jury at Cannes this year.
And yet "l'exception culturelle" is widely viewed as an exclusively French issue, so much so that the expression itself is often lifted, without translation, into foreign-language news stories, to be dismissed as yet another example of Gallic vanity.
José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, took his turn in a recent interview with The New York Times, in which he dismissed as "reactionary" an initiative -- whose author he didn't name -- to exclude movies, television shows and other audiovisual content from the early round of free trade negotiations between the European Union and the United States.
His description of the effort as a "defensive" reaction by those who have an "anti-global agenda" was quickly and loudly denounced by French newspapers, politicians and filmmakers -- proving, of course, how dear the issue is to French hearts.
But the French are not alone. Last month, 13 European cultural ministers backed what was, yes, a French initiative to exclude audiovisual content from the U.S.-E.U. trade talks. Famous movie directors like the Dardenne brothers of Belgium, Ken Loach and Stephen Frears of Britain, Pedro Almodóvar of Spain and Wim Wenders of Germany have come out in vocal defense of European cinema.
"L'exception culturelle" began decades ago as a defensive battle to shield France from an invasion by Hollywood in particular, and American culture in general. But it has since morphed into something else, as digital players like Netflix, Apple, Amazon and Google fight for the right to stream into Europe, bypassing local laws that support and promote local content.
European filmmakers, not surprisingly, worry that their movies, already hard to export in their native languages, will be drowned out by films and shows that are available at all hours, at home, for little money, or at least a small fraction of the current €10, or $13.25, it costs for a ticket to a Paris movie theater.
European governments subsidize culture -- from national museums and theaters to support for underemployed musicians and actors to translations of books -- because by and large, their voters, and audiences, want them to.
"Culture is one of the few industries that is doing well," said Michel Hazanavicius, president of the French Civil Society of Writers-Directors-Producers, in a radio interview this past week. "We create a social link. We are one of the definitions of Europe, certainly a better one than Barroso."
The movie business deserves a piece of that pie because it lacks easy access to worldwide distribution networks, he added.
"It is very complicated for us to be competitive in a deregulated market," added Mr. Hazanavicius, who directed "The Artist," which won five Oscars in 2012. "The Americans can make a $100 million movie, because they sell all over the world. Our market is France. If we eliminate 'l'exception culturelle,' we won't die, but we will have a sclerotic cinema, like in Italy."
It is often assumed that "l'exception culturelle" has propped up the French film industry by setting up impediments to foreign, in particular American, imports.
In fact, television viewers in France have happily watched major U.S. series like "Homeland," "Mad Men" and "Sex in the City," some on major channels. In 2012, American films represented 43 percent of the French market, and 61 percent of the European market, according to World Film Market Trends, a 2013 study by the European Audiovisual Observatory.
What is true is that France, with a population of 63 million, managed to produce a total of 279 films last year, a record in this century (compared with 103 for the United Kingdom, 134 for Italy and 154 for Germany). Of these, 129 were co-productions, mostly with European partners.
The main reason, of course, is the estimated €1 billion in annual public subsidies for French cinema, drawn from multiple taxes on television channels, movie tickets and Internet providers. A new 1 percent tax on smartphones and computer tablets is now proposed that would add another €86 million to the pile.
This makes France the fifth-largest producer of feature films in the world, and the first in Europe. A handful of these last year accounted for 27 percent of the European films released in North America, and 14.1 percent of the films seen by European audiences (ahead of the United Kingdom).
France, the country where cinema was born, also goes to the movies more than any other European nation. It ranks fifth in the world both for box-office receipts and general admissions.
All that makes for good boasting rights, but some argue that France would do better producing fewer, better movies.
Mr. Hazanavicius, in an article in the French newspaper Le Monde on May 5, argued that one remedy would be to make all those involved in films -- producers, directors and actors -- more interested in their financial success and less prone to inflating their budgets. "We are in a business where public success is no longer a condition for earning money," he wrote. The result, he added, is "a bubble that keeps getting bigger, and will explode, sooner or later."
It's hard to see how trade talks will force France, or any other European country, to abandon subsidies for the arts, a system now protected by multiple treaties.
A better way -- certainly in France -- would be to reform the ways movies are financed in hopes of turning the phrase around and getting a "culture exceptionelle," at least on the silver screen.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.