Rise of Far Right in France Threatens Culture, U.K. Goes Opposite Way

Europe is in a flux. Two sets of elections taking place within days of each other could see two of the continent’s most powerful countries — both with influential entertainment industries — head in opposite directions.

In the U.K., the Labour Party is expected to claim a landslide victory following Thursday’s election, shifting the country towards the center and, potentially, a period of political calm after years of turbulent Conservative rule that has leant further to the right. In France, however, following a wind of populism across Europe, the far-right could come into power for the first time since the pro-Nazi Vichy Regime during World War II. And it’s a move that many fear could threaten cultural policies, progressive agendas and economic standings across key countries. 

Boasting one of the world’s biggest economies, France also has a vibrant film and TV industry and ranks as Europe’s biggest nation of moviegoers on top of being the largest purveyor of local movies. It’s also home to some of Europe’s largest media groups, including Banijay and Mediawan, and is a primary destination for foreign investments. 

If the National Rally party, led by Marine Le Pen, dominates the 577-seat national assembly, they could possibly enter the government and cohabitate with President Emmanuel Macron, whose term ends in 2027. The rise of a nationalistic government could scare off foreign investors and put French companies in a difficult situation to borrow money because interest rates will inevitably go up. “Investors don’t like uncertainty, and even if the far right doesn’t win the majority, it will be a weak coalition government,” French media analyst Francois Godard tells Variety.

Beyond that, it could also damage a unique system which allows producers, writers and directors to tap into subsidies from the National Film Board (CNC) and funding from TV channels, while freelance workers in theater, other live entertainment and movies and TV receive unemployment benefits. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, some labor groups sounded the alarm over cuts to unemployment benefits made by Macron’s government, but the situation could become worse going forward. 

“They could undo decades of building this cultural ecosystem,” says Marc Missonnier, a leading figure of the local producers guild, of the far right. “Just look at how [Silvio] Berlusconi almost killed Italian cinema when he came into power: when far right wins majorities, they make symbolic and cultural changes,” says Missonnier, pointing to the late leader’s meddling in the film industry and alleged censorship.

The French entertainment industry, which leans toward the left and center, is at odds with the far right’s anti-immigration and xenophobic rhetoric and has spoken out against the populist movement on the eve of the parliamentary elections. More than 800 professionals, including actors and filmmakers such as Isabelle Carré, Gilles Lellouche and Cédric Klapisch, signed an op-ed published in Le Monde on June 23, which said: “Italy and Hungary have given an example of what culture would be in France if the far right obtained the majority.” Stars like Marion Cotillard and Pierre Niney have also posted against the far right on social media. 

Caroline Fourest, a prominent French writer, columnist and filmmaker who recently launched the magazine Franc-Tireur, shares Missonnier’s perspective and argues that culture is the one battlefield where the National Rally could look to leave its deepest imprint. “They’ll take a strong stance on certain topics to bolster their image and show people that they’re doing something,” says Fourest. 

One of these hot topics is the privatization of public broadcasting services, including seven public radio stations and six TV channels belonging to France Televisions which, among other things, largely contribute to the financing of local films and has an important news division.

Le Pen has already been vocal about her intent to privatize national public broadcasters. In an interview with public radio station France Inter on July 2, she said pubcasters should go private because “in a big democracy, the state can’t have a stronghold on the bulk of media. The best way to be free is to not depend financially on the government.”

Industry players fear Le Pen could follow the footsteps of Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who has been accused of interfering in content and stifling free speech at the country’s broadcaster RAI since taking office in 2022. In France, there are concerns the privatization of France Televisions could have a domino effect on the financing of French and European content because local TV channels represent a key source of funding.

“If parts of France Televisions becomes private, it would not only be a catastrophe for commercial channels [such as TF1 and M6], which would see their advertising revenues fall, it would also have a large consequence on producers because we don’t commission the same content when we’re a broadcaster as when we’re a private group where we prioritize profits and ratings,” says a source working at France Televisions. 

“It’s much more profitable to buy American content than to produce original French drama, and we would probably not have talk shows talking about societal issues on primetime if we were after ratings,” says the source, adding that some shows that France Televisions commissions, such as “Drag Race,” have been attacked by far-right politicians in the past. 

The budget of the public broadcasters, which surpassed €4 billion ($4.3 billion) for the first time this year and has 13,000 employees on its payroll, is also at stake if the far-right wins the majority of the national assembly in France. Until this year, nearly 85% of the budget was covered by a TV license fee ($148 per year) which was paid by each household that owned a TV set, but Macron’s government scrapped that fee and replaced it with a levy on VAT that amounted to $4 billion this year. But that VAT funding is due to end this year, so whoever comes out victorious of these elections will be holding the cards. 

“The public media sector will be an easy prey, and by weakening it, they’ll also aim at keeping their rivals in check and indirectly strike a blow against the French film world they despise,” Fourest says.

The rise of the far right is happening as the French film industry goes through a #MeToo reckoning that has seen major actors and directors accused of sexual assault. The movement is being spearheaded by actor Judith Godreche, whose testimonies against Benoit Jacquot and Jacques Doillon have led the French Parliament to launch an inquiry into sexual- and gender-based violence across the country’s film, audiovisual and performing arts. But that initiative ended when Macron dissolved the national assembly. It doesn’t look like it will rise from its ashes with a parliament dominated by the far right. 

“Anyone who believes that the far right will advance the cause of women and minorities, or any underdogs, is dead wrong,” Missonnier says. 

Unlike in Italy, where Meloni gained control of RAI without much of a fight and replaced its president, the National Rally would face tremendous backlash in France, Godard says. “In France, we have a deep-entrenched culture of independence within broadcasters and we have a very active watchdog body Arcom, which is responsible for appointing presidents of pubcasters and wouldn’t allow a government to take it over.”

But the government does have the power to appoint another key role for the film and TV industry, and that is the president of the National Film Board (CNC), which is responsible for allocating subsidies and setting policies. It turns out this position is currently open — occupied by an interim head — as the CNC president Dominique Boutonnat just stepped down after receiving a three-year prison sentence for the alleged sexual assault of his godson.

At the Cannes Film Festival, insiders are not expecting a major change in case of a far-right victory, at least not in the short term. The recent example of Meloni’s government leaving Venice Film Festival’s artistic director Alberto Barbera in place reinforces the assumption that the French far-right might not touch Cannes which is thriving and has an international reputation. 

“Those who come into the government this summer are the same who will want to win the presidential election in 2027, so they can’t piss off everybody right off the bat,” said the festival insider, adding that if the far right comes in, “they’ll have enough to deal with and enough enemies to fight off so Cannes wouldn’t be a priority.”

Meanwhile, across the English Channel, the U.K. is facing a very different situation. The right-wing Conservative government, which has been regularly leaning into more populist talking points, is now almost certain to be replaced by the far more centrist Labour Party following the election on July 4.

After 14 years of the Conservatives in power and a recent plummeting in public support for the party –sparked by Boris Johnson’s controversy-strewn period as prime minister, continued by Liz Truss’ disastrous 44-day-long tenure (in which the value of the pound collapsed and interest rates soared) and current leader Rishi Sunak, who is seen as woefully out of touch — anything other than a Labour landslide victory would be a major shock. Such has been the Conservative’s catastrophic fall from grace that several polls suggest that, following Thursday’s general election — which was called unexpectedly by Sunak in May — they may not even be the main opposition party. 

But what does the change in government mean for the U.K.’s creative and media industries? 

In the near future, probably very little. Echoing how it has approached most areas of policymaking (quite possibly so the Conservatives can implode by themselves without risking putting their necks on the line), the Labour Pary, led by Keir Starmer, has said very little about its plans. As Claire Enders of Enders Analysis notes, “we currently don’t know” who might be taking over as secretary of state for culture, media and sport, with current shadow minister Thangam Debbonaire not certain to win her seat in the city of Bristol thanks to a surge in support for the local left-wing Green Party candidate. 

But there’s no sense that the Labour Party has desires to push through any form of radical reform whatsoever if it gets into power, and it certainly hasn’t hinted of any swings its planning to take at cherished national cultural institutions. 

Whereas French public service broadcasters may be fearing for their future under a Le Pen government, in the U.K. they’ve arguably just been through — and survived — their greatest recent threat. 

Johnson’s leadership saw repeat attacks against the BBC and Channel 4 (often around the same time unfavorable news coverage was aired). The BBC’s license fee — currently £169.50 ($216) per household and accounting for 65% of the broadcaster’s total income of $7.3 billion — became a regular stick with which to beat it, with Johnson threatening to scrap it altogether. Meanwhile, the state-owned but commercially funded Channel 4 battled efforts for it to be privatized for several years, efforts which finally ended once Johnson was forced from office. While the PSBs still need to evolve to cope with the influence of streamers in the U.K. and changing viewing habits, the very recent dark days when they were in the government crosshairs appear to over. 

“Ideas of privatization are from the right-wing playbook, so you can see them cropping up in France, in the Netherlands and everywhere where there’s an extreme right-wing politician,” says Enders. “So by comparison, where French public broadcasters only have six months left of funding, I’d say the BBC is in pretty good shape, and has a guaranteed income for a very long time.”

That said, the BBC’s license fee model will soon be under the microscope as part of a wider review into its size, scope and funding, with a new BBC Charter needing to have been agreed by 2027. “But all I’ve been told by everybody from everyone in Labour is that they have the highest respect for the BBC,” says Enders, noting that senior execs at the department for culture, media and sport “aren’t expecting anything major at all” from the incoming government.

But many in the industry are hoping for some sort of activity, with Labour taking the reins during a period of uncertainty for a screen sector that is not only a source of national pride but has become one of the fastest growing areas of the economy (according to recent government statistics, “Film, TV, video, radio and photography” contributed $26.5 billion in 2022). However, it’s one that is showing increasing fragility.   

While film and TV investment may have been regularly breaking records over the last decade as the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Sky and Universal have poured billions into the country (inward investment from film and high-end TV hit $7.7 billion in 2022), the U.K.’s growing reliance on Hollywood was brought into stark reality by the devastation caused by last year’s actors strike. With productions shutting down across the country, thousands of workers found themselves unemployed (at the height of the strike, below the line worker union Bectu found that three-quarters of its members were out of work). Many were forced to leave the sector altogether. 

“We are a service industry for Hollywood, we absolutely are, but that could and can change,” says Georgia Brown, the former head of Amazon Studios Europe who currently serves as the voluntary chair of the Skills Task Force, announced last year to address the critical skilled labour shortages. 

In fairness to the current Conservative government, earlier this year — after heavy lobbying from the industry — it introduced a new 40% film tax credit for U.K. productions budgeted at under $19 million, aimed at boosting an independent film sector that was at a point of collapse (spend fell to just $150 million in 2023). Ben Roberts, chief executive of the British Film Institute, described it as the “most significant policy intervention since the 1990s,” and it was applauded by the film world.

But Brown wants to see similar intervention — and a similar coming together from across the sector — to help solve the “huge crisis” for the predominantly freelance workforce, which is hit hardest with every major upheaval, be it COVID or Hollywood strikes. “We’re losing swathes of people overnight, and whoever comes into power has to embrace this idea of collectively working together to strategically look at how we spend both public and private money for a better outcome in the future.”

For U.K. producer Jonathan Weissler — who notes how much of the country’s freelance workforce “fell through the cracks” of the government’s COVID furlough scheme and came out of the pandemic with “huge amounts of debt” — he’s also hoping that the new government boosts local productions in cinemas. Taking a leaf from the French book, he’d like to see a levy put in place to ensure that a “percentage of all films released are British films.”

Leo Pearlman, managing partner at Fulwell 73, the unscripted veterans who produced “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” says he’s calling on the new government to “back our industry, be bullish and target real growth, not to be satisfied with mere consolidation.” Pearlman has been spearheading a new $568 million film and TV studio in the northern English city of Sunderland, one of several new developments being built outside the traditional studio base around London as the industry gradually devolves away from the capital. He says he wants whoever wins the election to continue “expanding out studio footprint outside of the South East.”

Mitchell Simmons, VP of government relations in the U.K. at Paramount, meanwhile, says the new government “should champion our industry, not just for its social and cultural benefit, but as a key component of economic growth.”

Of course, these are mostly industry wish lists and requests for an incoming government that is yet to reveal its hand. But it’s a hand very few expect will contain anything remotely surprising or shocking when it comes to most areas, let alone the creative sector. And that’s something that lies in stark contrast to the deep existential concerns just a short Eurostar train ride away. 

Given the last few years in the U.K., where the often knee-jerk and seemingly ill-considered activities of those in the highest positions of political power have often forced people to look across into Europe for some sense of rational decision making, it’s going to be a deeply unusual — and probably welcoming — experience.

For France, however, while it’s difficult to conceive any sort of silver lining amid the current chaos, Laurent Zeitoun, the producer of “The Intouchables,” says there’s potentially a “bright future” for storytellers and feel-good movies.

“When reality becomes to difficult to cope with, you imagination is a refuge,” he said. “As Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, ‘Imagination heals men of what they can’t be. Humor heals them of what they are.’”

K.J. Yossman contributed to this report.

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