I don’t think it is a coincidence that the French Government proposed a new Culture Tax in the same week as tonight’s Eurovision Song Contest.
The Europeans have made some pretty bad mistakes over the years such as two World Wars, the Euro and Belgium. On the other hand, like the Common Market and the Division of Germany, the Eurovision Song Contest seemed like a good idea at the time. Back in 1956, the concept of an entire continent seeing a live TV broadcast was the stuff of science fiction – but so was going to the Moon, and the Americans had got that out of their system by 1973 when Anne-Marie David won the competition for Luxembourg with “Tu te reconnaitras”.
French, that language of haute culture, has always had a special place at the Contest. Scoring is in French and English just to needle the Germans and , as recently as 1962 when France won with “Un Premier Amour”, no fewer than 5 of the 16 entries were sung in that beautiful tongue. In 1967, although the winner was Britain’s barefoot Sandie Shaw, Luxembourg’s 4th placed ” L’Amour Est Bleu” became by far the bigger international hit (The Austrians came inexplicably nowhere with a ditty entitled: “Warum Es Hunderttausend Sterne Gibt”). It seems that, as long as the French and their satellites were singing about their favourite cultural pastime “Amour” they were in the ascendant. Fifty-odd years later, with the annual contest resembling a circus freak show, the 2013 songlist only includes one French entry: “L’enfer et moi” performed by Amandine Bourgeois (you couldn’t make it up) with the recurring refrain (translated): “I’m gonna give you hell”. No chance. The Gauls should have stuck to what they know best – surrendering to love (or should that be, loving to surrender?).
Although the Eurovision Song Contest is no longer a bellwether of a country’s musical prowess – the British have even taken to using it as a Testimonial for hard-up-and-over-the-hill artists such as last year’s 76-year-old Engelbert Humperdinck and this years 61-year-old Bonnie Tyler – the poor French really are losing the international culture wars. Even the language of international diplomacy is being continually eroded as English marches on.
However, it is heartwarming to observe the stubbornness and tenacity of the French people in standing alone with North Korea in rejecting the spread of US culture across the globe (although accounts suggest that Kim Jong-un is a far more ardent consumer of American everything than his “Let’s go Armageddon” image portrays). Even the Chinese have just elected (in the most obtuse sense of the word) a Ronald Reagan hairdo look-a-like as their president.
A French Government commissioned report issued last week – President Dumbo-L’Elephant likes reports as they buy him time – recommended a 1% tax on the sale of internet hardware products such as smartphones and tablets in order to help fund the “French Cultural Exception” policy. For the Philistines among us (which really means “the Philistines among YOU” but, unlike the French, I am being polite), the French Cultural Exception policy is designed to protect France from market forces (sacre bleu!) and foreign competition. “Foreign” is a barely disguised euphemism for “American.” The justification provided by the French Culture Minister, Aurelie Filipetti (who I picture making her announcement in a Christian Dior silk gown, her ears and neck dripping with diamonds) was that the tax would compensate for the fact that so little revenue is contributed to State coffers by digital content, which is probably true since most of it is in English.
With the annual inflow of an estimated €86 million, perhaps French directors will be able to afford music in some of their films while dubbing Hollywood classics like “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, “French Connection”, “Le Deuxiemme French Connection” and “Minuit in Paris” (pronounced Pareeeee).
Meanwhile distinctive Paris architecture (amazingly untouched by the ravages of 20th century wars mainly because they were ravaged elsewhere), a national commitment to the eccentricities of French cuisine, loyalty to French-built cars (consumer masochism), a violent reaction to the use of English and a commitment to a work ethic that should safely bring the country to its knees within two years, result in a truly distinctive French experience for the visitor to France.
Of course, they are not totally immune. A walk down the Champs Elysees, host over the years to a multitude of foreign-made jackboots, reveals a quiet invasion by multinational retailers that have replaced many of the quaint Cafes of old – but at least they are trying.
The Eurovision Song Contest has, over the years, moved from an elegant boast of the continent’s popular music, to inane tosh (the all-time classic of which was “Boom-Bang-a-Bang”) to a competition fit to be sponsored by national garbage collection companies.
The high-water mark of its nearly 60 year history was definitely 1974, when a young Swedish group decided not to sing in Swedish; future artists, putting two and two together, worked out that there was a reason – other than being hated by the Greeks -that Turkey always seemed to gravitate towards “no points”, and started to follow suit.
The French would have done well to note the title of the winning song for Sweden that night. It was, of course, “Waterloo”.