Culture: In France, It's in the Blood

Culture: In France, It's in the Blood

Culture: In France, It's in the Blood

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 15 1999 1:37 PM

Culture: In France, It's in the Blood

Last week, the French weekly L'Express had a cover story entitled "Cinema: How To Fight Back Against America." Meanwhile, three French ex-ministers (including ex-prime minister Laurent Fabius) went on trial for letting thousands get transfused with AIDS-infected blood in the mid-1980s. These aren't unrelated stories.

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One reason France has the highest number of transfusion-borne AIDS cases in Europe is negligence. Well after the 1983 discovery of the AIDS virus--by French scientists, incidentally--but before screening was possible, France continued to harvest much of its blood supply from prison populations. Transfusions are also given more routinely in France than elsewhere--to mothers post-delivery, for instance.

But here's the big reason Fabius is on trial: For three months in the spring of 1985, his government failed to implement screening techniques readily available from Abbott Laboratories, an American company. At that time, Abbott's rivals at the French Pasteur Institute were browbeating every politico within lobbying range to wait for the development of a French procedure, which they promised was only weeks away. Long weeks, if you were a hemophiliac.

So why did the Fabius government agree to hold off? Part of the blame lies with French cultural politics--particularly the cultural nationalism of the first Mitterrand administration. In 1981, Culture Minister Jack Lang got Mitterrand to double his ministry's budget. Two things really bugged Lang. The first, famously, was America. His early days in office were marked by embarrassingly thorough diktats aimed at purging French of Anglicisms and frothy tirades against the Deauville festival of American film.

The second bee in Lang's bonnet was the negligible position of culture in day-to-day life. Lang was ultimately a materialist who felt that culture wasn't "real" unless it was shaping politics and the economy. His ministry's motto was: "Économie et culture--même combat." So he launched what historian Marc Fumaroli, in his magisterial L'État Culturel, calls "a strategy of opinion intoxication." He had Rimbaud selections printed for distribution to government ministers. His most Ozymandian efforts in this direction were gargantuan, Woodstock-style concerts on behalf of the state-sponsored initiative "SOS Racism." Lang and Danielle Mitterrand and associated hangers- on were always insistent that the concerts created a climate of tolerance.

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All right, then. Should they therefore shoulder responsibility for the climate of medical/industrial chauvinism that led the Fabius government to let people die of AIDS while awaiting a "French" way of testing blood?

In their defense, France has had a fairly consistent cultural policy for the past two decades. The socialist Lang trashed Rambo; the conservative Jacques Toubon decreed that 40 percent of songs on the radio must be French chansons. I'm sympathetic to worries about being swamped by U.S. culture, armed as it is with theater monopolies, language advantages, and economies of scale. It's good that France remain a non-Anglo-Saxon exception culturelle--and a certain price, within reason, is worth paying for it.

But I'm afraid the answer is: Yes.

--Christopher Caldwell