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France firm on culture ahead of US trade talks

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France firm on culture ahead of US trade talks
French Commerce Minister Nicole Bricq. Photo: John Thys/AFP
09:44 CEST+02:00
EU ministers were trying Friday to convince France its prized "cultural exception" could be safely included in talks on the world's biggest free trade deal with the United States but Paris still refused to budge.

France "rejects this mandate," French Commerce Minister Nicole Bricq told her EU colleagues at the opening of talks in Luxembourg, as they tried to resolve the issue before the G8 summit in Northern Ireland next week.

"France will refuse any mandate which does not come with protection of the cultural sector and a clear and explicit exclusion of the audiovisual sector," Bricq said in her opening remarks.

Washington says no areas should be excluded and EU officials have repeatedly warned that any exceptions will only hand the US an early bargaining chip in what promise to be very tough negotiations.

At the same time, ministers are under great pressure to agree the guidelines on which the European Commission will negotiate the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) so the talks can be formally launched at next week's G8 meeting.

Washington and Brussels hope the free trade deal will deliver a major boost to growth and jobs, especially in Europe where the euro debt crisis has left the economy stuck in the doldrums.

An accord would be the world's largest Free Trade Agreement, with bilateral trade in goods last year worth some €500 billion ($670 billion), services worth another €280 billion and investment flows hitting the trillions.

The EU says it would add some €119 billion annually to the EU economy and €95 billion for the United States.

As the day dragged on, it appeared little progress was being made.

After some 10 hours of talks, ministers took up a what one EU source described as a "not in, not out" formula which would exclude the audiovisual sector for now but allow the Commission to come back to it if need be.

Diplomatic sources said it had been hoped that this would be enough to reach an overall accord but differences remained and talks were ongoing to try and nail down the issue.

French officials say culture generally in Europe is well protected from the Hollywood juggernaut, but with rapid technological change in the digital era, current protections on films and other content could easily be taken over.

It was therefore better to exclude the audiovisual sector now rather than risk putting it in the talks and get a deal that later proves dated and inadequate, they said.

Minister Richard Bruton of Ireland, which holds the current EU presidency and so chairs the talks, said earlier: "We have made a lot of changes to give confidence that the audiovisual sector will be protected."

In an effort to get France on board, the Commission had offered Paris a right of review and approval of any decisions taken on the cultural sector.

This was in addition to an earlier compromise to ring-fence film, TV and music in the US talks to further protect them, Bruton said.

An EU source said of the morning discussions that "a large majority were in favour" of the negotiating mandate on the table but the decision has to be unanimous among all 27 member states.

France jealously guards it cultural sector, with French TV stations required to air at least 40-percent home produced content while another 20 percent must come from Europe.

Cinema-goers pay a levy on each ticket to help fund the French film industry which many believe could not survive without such support in the face of Hollywood's dominance.

At the meeting, ministers were also to review a series of trade disputes with China which have also exposed deep differences within the EU -- notably between Berlin and Paris.

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