French culture (credit: Alliance Francaise Phoenix)
The French "exception culturelle"   Is French culture alive or dying ?

Culture and markets do not mix well !

The French have a concept that they call "l'exception culturelle française" (the French cultural exception) which drives crazy all American delegates in any international meeting. What does it mean? Basically, refering to "exception culturelle" means that everything "cultural" must be protected from the "hegemony" of the markets, the State being the regulator and, when necessary, the sponsor of a cultural policy.

Basically it means that "cultural products" are not "products" and cannot be subject to:

  • the regulation which applies to "products" (free enterprise, no State subsidy, no quotas etc...)
  • the criteria which apply to "products" (the more you sell, the better it is, etc...).

Why ? Because they express the cultural value of the French society, particularly its language, and they need to be protected against competition by a stronger competitor, with a larger market, lower production cost, different values which would kill the French culture and replace it by a foreign one. It does not matter if a foreign car industry overcomes the French one : cars would be different, that's all, but if all French writers, French film-makers, French musicians were replaced by foreign writers, film-makers and musicians, France would no longer be France. As a consequence, most French support the idea that it is legitimate to protect cultural activities from pure market laws and it is the role of the State to protect them and if necessary subsidize them with public money.This is why there is a Minister of Culture in the Cabinet. This is also why when the Louvre developed a new policy of renting some of its art works to raise money, it created a huge uproar in France. Read more about typically French ethical values.

A few well-known illustrations of this policy:

  • France fought to obtain that the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) founded by the UN in 1946 would be located in Paris.
  • France instigated and supported the 1988 EU directive Television without Frontiers : TV programs must include at least 50% European productions (for France : 60%)
  • In the 1993 negotiation of the Uruguay Round (GATT), French negotiators opposed violently US negotiators who, to avoid the political risk of a failure, had to concede that cultural products would be excluded from the agreement.
  • By the same token, in May 2013 France was actively pushing the other European countries to exclude the whole audiovisual sector from the (future) free-trade agreement between the US and the EU.
A French specificity : every year the President of France MUST present his greetings to the "world of culture" (which generally answers back with street demonstations against him!)

This concern (largely shared in France) explains certain elements of the French legislation such as :


Is the French culture dead or dying? This recurrent question is a classical theme in the American press (such as "The Death of French Culture" in Time Magazine Dec. 2007) The comments are always the same : France no longer has world-famous thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre or singers such as Edith Piaf ; contrary to the "Nouvelle Vague" French movies are now mediocre and self-centered, French novelists are not translated and are unknown outside France, the French State puts too much money to help too mediocre artists, etc.... My comments :

  • There is a language issue : French culture is of course in French (!) and is not known if not translated : what do you know about Japanese novels if they're not translated ? 

  • For books and movies, the role of US publishers and distributors is very important and often they are not interested if it is not "typically French" (see an interesting example, of a good movie which did not look "French enough")

  • Culture has many aspects and in some of them, the French do very well all over the world : architecture (Nouvel, Portzamparc,  etc.), dance, techno music, etc...

  • The French culture is not dead (as US magazines like to write : see an example) and the "new France" is not only represented by suburban riots. Thanks to ethnic diversity, there is an incredibly rich new generation of young singers, movie-makers and writers.

  • Says Jerome Clément, President of Arte, the (excellent) Franco-German TV Channel : " Culture is not a beauty contest. You must not evaluate the cultural level of a country by counting the number of writers Mr.Average on the other end of the planet can name or the Top 50 of the best world sales . If Arte exists and contributes to the influence of French culture worldwide, it is thanks to the action of the State. " (Le Monde 16/12/2008)

  • When you say "it was better fourty years ago", it's often what people used to say fourty years ago...However, there is now (2014) some Good News about culture.

  • The French Magazine Figaro published a list of 35 "French personnalisties of the Year 2008" who all got international prizes and awards. How many of these names have you seen in the US press ? And Le Monde writes that "2008 was a great year for French culture!" : read more.

  • More about "l'exception culturelle française".

  • See also : "Is French science alive or dying ?"

  • Read about French bashing...
  • More to come

French openness to other cultures

  • The French, who are notoriously proud of their own culture, are very open to other cultures : more than other countries (guess who I have in mind!), they translate foreign literature, welcome foreign films, invite foreign creators to their more prestigious cinema festivals (like Cannes), literary prizes (like Goncourt), theater festivals (like Avignon), etc.
  • More to come...
  • "Prix unique du livre" : a limitation at 5% of the discount on books (to support small publishing houses and help maintain small bookstores against the competition of supermarkets) ; in 2013, the Ministry of Culture created a dedicated fund (Fonds de Soutien) with 10 m. Euros to help small bookstores for their short term financing needs. The result : France has more bookstores, with book-sellers who have read many of the books they sell! Of course, books are a little bit more expensive than if they were sold in supermarkets, but would supermarkets offer the same kinds of books?

  • Quotas on non-French movies on French national TV channels and mandatory financing of films by TV channels (as a provision in their license) and quotas of French music on radio channels (standard : 40%)

  • "Avance sur recettes" or "fonds de soutien": a financial State advance on all French films (the French movie industry is third in the world after the USA and India and France is the only Western country where foreign films represent less than 50% of the market : in Germany, Italy and UK, they represent more than 80%)

  • Less taxes : TVA (value added tax) is 5,5% on cinema (like on food) when it is 20% on almost everything

  • An example of what the French mean by "cultural policy". By law, free TV channels are not allowed to show a movie on Saturday evening. Why ? Because watching TV would keep people from going out to watch a movie in a movie theater. To help movie theaters and to encourage a more active cultural life, the State considers its duty to suppress the temptation to stay home. Most Americans think this is crazy Socialism and most Frenchmen think that by doing that, the State is doing its job (read about : the French and Americanization).

  • The legal status of "les intermittents du spectacle" (unemployment-system for artists, musicians, technicians, etc...) is outside the general system and heavily subsidised.

  • Read more about the French policy of "exception culturelle" for movies"

  • A classical theme of the US press is : with the State playing such an important role in the financing and the promotion of films, literature, etc..., "no wonder the French culture is dead " (or just "dying" if the writer wants to be more balanced...).

  • More to come....



Cultural activities of the French

Periodically, the Ministry of Culture runs a survey and ranks the cultural activities ("pratiques culturelles") of the French. Here are the main results (1973-2008) (see an excerpt or the whole official study) :

  • a steady increase of music : listening and playing
  • (of course) more time on a screen
  • less reading of books and newspapers
  • more artistic activities with others
  • more frequent visits to cultural places


You'll find this kind of little cabin in many French streets : you leave inside the books you don't want to keep and you take another one that you do not have to bring back. (here in La Baule) (source)



An example of the French cultural policy

Created in May 2021, the Pass Culture is an app, sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture, which entitles anybody at age 18 living in France to buy any cultural product at the State's expense (book, record, app, concert, museum etc). In 2021, over 600,000 have already used it (valid up to 300€ over a maximum of two years).










About "culture générale" in France ...

What is "culture générale" for the French ? It is a commonly shared value, familiar to any Frenchman : one must have an interest in and a basic knowledge of everything important in literature, history, political events, music, etc.  and be able to talk about any of them in any social situation, for example around a dinner table.

A person who is unable to do this, even if he/she is extremely knowledgeable in one particular field is considered boring and “pas cultivé”.
This is true in any country but it may be considered more important by the French for reasons which have been studied by sociologists (among them Bourdieu and Hazareesingh for example). 
For Bourdieu, this is the way the French dominant class can exclude the dominated class and maintain its domination from generation to generation by educating its children through the acquisition of a “culture générale” at home.
For Hazareesingh, favoring the familiarity with general ideas and concepts is the way to have access to power (“erudition is acknowledged in all cultures but France is different with its tight association between knowledge and power”)

However, the general vision  of “culture générale” in France is that it is an indispensable part of the French identity, a common respect all French people share regardless of education, money or social class.
And in must not be boring and pompous : as 18th century philosopher Montesquieu pointed out (L’esprit des lois, 1748), “the French nature is to do frivolous things seriously and serious things merrily”.

A few examples :

  • some of the most popular shows on TV or radio are competitions in the form of erudite quizzes on history of literature
  • for the election of Miss France, there is a test of “culture générale”
  • misspelling is still not accepted
  • what every French high school kid knows (or should know) : see pages oh history, art or literature on this site
  • more to come

Facts and figures about culture in France

  • Why is culture so important for the French ? The reason is both in geography and history. France enjoys a fertile soil, a mild climate and has always been a rich country : its leaders, the nobility, the Church and the kings could afford to devote more resources to art in all its forms by building castles and by commissioning writers, poets, musicians, furniture makers, etc. French history tightly links culture to an image of strength and leadership : the nobility and the kings used their cultural role and preeminence to try to impress their rivals. A famous episode of this type of policy is the meeting of the Field of the Cloth of Gold between Francois 1st of France and Henry VIII of England in 1520 when the two kings tried to impress each other with the signs of their wealth and of the richness of their culture at their court. Today the French president (and the mayor in the smallest city) thinks that his/her duty is to demonstrate that its rich culture contributes to the power of France.

  • The State spends money on culture and this budget represents around 1% of the budget of the State. It is managed by a member of the Cabinet, the Ministre de la Culture, and it is a very prestigious position (Andre Malraux was the most famous of them).

  • There is a large consensus in France (this is not the case on many issues . . .) : culture is important and it is good to allot time, interest and taxpayers money to it. It is remarkable to observe that, in Fall 2014, in a period of scarce budgetary resources for corporations and for the State, several new cultural facilities have been opened or re-opened : the new Louis Vuitton foundation in a superb building by Franck Gehry and with the Bernard Arnault collection, the Picasso museum, which doubled its size, the refurbishment of the Hotel de la Monnaie, not to mention the opening, in 2013, of the MUCEM (Musee des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Mediterranee) in Marseille, which is incredibly successful.

  • French schools of music, cinema and art keep attracting the best students of the world. Among them (Source : Capital, Aug. 2014) :

    • Institut Paul Bocuse (Lyon) : hotels and tourism
    • Ecole Ferrandi (Paris) : cooking and restaurants
    • Institut des sciences de la Vigne et du Vin (ISVV) (near Bordeaux) : eonology
    • La FEMIS : image and sound (part of Paris-Sorbonne)
    • Ecole de Lutherie de Mirecourt : stringed instruments
    • Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris : music
    • ENS Louis-Lumiere (Saint Denis) : cinema
    • Ecole des Gobelins (Paris) : animation (cinema)
    • Ecole Boulle (Paris) : design
    • Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de Couture Parisienne : fashion
    • etc.
  • Section to be developed
To related pages : French movies, French songs, French cartoons, French literature, how to impress your friends (with your familiarity with French literature), intercultural differences, French attitudes, French styles for furniture, etc...

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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