André Malraux, the prolific French critic and Minister of Culture under Charles de Gaulle, once wrote that art is an “anti-destin,” a revolt against destiny. And by that measure, the country’s recently-released report calling for a tax on internet-connected devices to fund cultural production qualifies simultaneously as artless and a work of art in itself. The generally well-intentioned document, authored by Pierre Lescure, a special advisor on France’s “exception culturelle” doctrine, was presented to President François Hollande on Monday, and Le Monde reported that it marks a departure from the aggressive copyright-protection tactics previously favored by Nicholas Sarkozy’s conservative government.
The case is laid out in grisly detail, in 80 individual arguments comprising 500 pages, but the gist of it is: France’s cultural patrimony, or at least its cultural bureaucracy, has been harmed by the diffusive powers of the web, and would very much benefit from a shot in the arm in the form of a tax on all internet-enabled devices. The Lescure report further suggests that the ideal rate is 1%, levied against all web-enabled hardware sold. This would generate revenues of €86 million (~$110m) from an overall market estimated at €8.6 billion (~$11b).
Of course, the report, which prompted one conservative politician to levy the familiar accusation that Mr. Lescure and the French left are “high on taxes,” should be commended for its thorough reaction to an obvious problem, but the resulting decision to tax electronic hardware is plainly unrealistic. Though a state subsidy of the arts has an important role to play in democratic societies, and is an area in which the United States can certainly stand to learn a thing or two from Western Europe, a provocative proposal such as this one is just that — a high-visibility attempt at troubleshooting an issue for which there is no clear solution.
It’s the kind of thinking that would probably permanently end a politician’s career in the United States, but in France comes across as a proposal to be debated and discussed, if not implemented. As many advocates for an increased awareness of the costs of cultural production would likely agree, there is a balance to be struck between top-down state intervention and the cultivation of a behavioral shift at the grassroots level.
The Lescure report can be read as a defeatist and ham-fisted reaction to what should be an attempt at wide-scale correction in the consumption patterns of web denizens, and for that reason alone should fail. Nevertheless, the French government already charges a tax on digital storage for the very same purpose, and it raises €200 million (~$257m) from that annually, so forget about encouraging small-scale artistic patronage and altruistic concert-going — it may very well be time for beleaguered copyright holders to consider Gallic relocations.
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