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Cultural Exception a Sticking Point in Trans-Atlantic Trade Talks

French actress Berenice Bejo, right, and Belgian director Lucas Belvaux address the media at the European parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, June 11, 2013, after their meeting with EU officials asking that audiovisual services be kept off the table during upcoming EU-US free-trade negotiations.
Negotiations get under way Monday between Washington and Europe to strike the world's largest free trade agreement. While talks are shadowed by European anger at the U.S. Prism surveillance program, there are plenty of other potential roadblocks, including France's demand for a "cultural exception" protecting Europe's movie, television and online entertainment sector.

A summer evening in eastern Paris. People are out picnicking and playing the traditional French game of boules and buying tickets for an evening show at the local cinema. The current lineup includes several new French movies.

But Morelle and Xavier Dupuis have other plans.

Superman: Man of Steel is the couple's hands-down choice. The two are in their 30s, and Morelle Dupuis said they grew up with Superman -- he's their hero.

French film The Artist may have swept Hollywood's Academy Awards last year, but across Europe, American movies, radio and TV programs are dominating the airwaves and movie theaters.

Even in France, which sets quota requirements favoring French productions, some of the most popular movies and television shows are produced by Hollywood.

Now, as trade talks get under way between the European Union and Washington for a massive free trade agreement, France's insistence for a "cultural exception" may prove a key sticking point.

Not surprisingly, the battle for cultural exception has galvanized Europe's movie industry. The Artist star Berenice Bejo made a passionate defense of it at the European Parliament.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso addresses the media at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 13, 2013.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso addresses the media at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 13, 2013.
'Reactionary' remark

But the cultural clause has even proved controversial in Europe. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, for one, has criticized as "reactionary" those in France who are against globalization.

Barroso did not specifically mention the French government, and later he said that culture should be accorded specific treatment in the trade talks.

But in an interview with French media, Barroso said that a resounding majority of EU member states supported the commission's position not to exclude any particular category ahead of the trade talks.

Nonetheless, outrage at Barroso's "reactionary" remark has resounded across France's political landscape, from far right leader Marine Le Pen to Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Addressing French parliament, Ayrault said championing cultural exception was not reactionary. To the contrary, it was a necessary affirmation of the world's cultural diversity, which even Barroso must accept.

But as far as French analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges is concerned, the campaign for cultural exception has already been defeated.

"You must look at the screens in Paris - so many American movies. It's clear that Hollywood is present everywhere. And cultural exception will not change that," he said.

Still, the Dupuis, for one, believe there should be a cultural exception clause in the talks - despite their differences over the quality of French cinema.

The couple said that such an exception would allow young French actors to emerge and flourish.

Another movie goer, Helene Bugaut, agreed.

Bugaut said the government was right to help French production, since the world was dominated by English speakers. She said she watched lots of French movies.

But not tonight. Like the Dupuis, Bugaut has bought a ticket for Superman.