The days grow short. A cold wind stirs the fallen leaves, and some mornings the vineyards are daubed with frost. Yet all across France, life has begun anew: the 2007 harvest is in. And what a harvest it has been. At least 727 new novels, up from 683 for last autumn's literary rentrée. Hundreds of new music albums and dozens of new films. Blockbuster art exhibitions at all the big museums. Fresh programs of concerts, operas and plays in the elegant halls and salles that grace French cities. Autumn means many things in many countries, but in France it signals the dawn of a new cultural year.
And nobody takes culture more seriously than the French. They subsidize it generously; they cosset it with quotas and tax breaks. French media give it vast amounts of airtime and column inches. Even fashion magazines carry serious book reviews, and the Nov. 5 announcement of the Prix Goncourt one of more than 900 French literary prizes was front-page news across the country. (It went to Gilles Leroy's novel Alabama Song.) Every French town of any size has its annual opera or theater festival, nearly every church its weekend organ or chamber-music recital.
There is one problem. All of these mighty oaks being felled in France's cultural forest make barely a sound in the wider world. Once admired for the dominating excellence of its writers, artists and musicians, France today is a wilting power in the global cultural marketplace. That is an especially sensitive issue right now, as a forceful new President, Nicolas Sarkozy, sets out to restore French standing in the world. When it comes to culture, he will have his work cut out for him.
Only a handful of the season's new novels will find a publisher outside France. Fewer than a dozen make it to the U.S. in a typical year, while about 30% of all fiction sold in France is translated from English. That's about the same percentage as in Germany, but there the total number of English translations has nearly halved in the past decade, while it's still growing in France. Earlier generations of French writers from Molière, Hugo, Balzac and Flaubert to Proust, Sartre, Camus and Malraux did not lack for an audience abroad. Indeed, France claims a dozen Nobel literature laureates more than any other country though the last one, Gao Xingjian in 2000, writes in Chinese.
France's movie industry, the world's largest a century ago, has yet to recapture its New Wave eminence of the 1960s, when directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were rewriting cinematic rules. France still churns out about 200 films a year, more than any other country in Europe. But most French films are amiable, low-budget trifles for the domestic market. American films account for nearly half the tickets sold in French cinemas. Though homegrown films have been catching up in recent years, the only vaguely French film to win U.S. box-office glory this year was the animated Ratatouille oops, that was made in the U.S. by Pixar.
The Paris art scene, birthplace of Impressionism, Surrealism and other major -isms, has been supplanted, at least in commercial terms, by New York City and London. Auction houses in France today account for only about 8% of all public sales of contemporary art, calculates Alain Quemin, a researcher at France's University of Marne-La-Vallée, compared with 50% in the U.S. and 30% in Britain. In an annual calculation by the German magazine Capital, the U.S. and Germany each have four of the world's 10 most widely exposed artists; France has none. An ArtPrice study of the 2006 contemporary-art market found that works by the leading European figure Britain's Damien Hirst sold for an average of $180,000. The top French artist on the list, Robert Combas, commanded $7,500 per work.
France does have composers and conductors of international repute, but no equivalents of such 20th century giants as Debussy, Satie, Ravel and Milhaud. In popular music, French chanteurs and chanteuses such as Charles Trenet, Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf were once heard the world over. Today, Americans and Brits dominate the pop scene. Though the French music industry sold $1.7 billion worth of recordings and downloads last year, few performers are famous outside the country. Quick: name a French pop star who isn't Johnny Hallyday.
France's diminished cultural profile would be just another interesting national crotchet like Italy's low birthrate, or Russia's fondness for vodka if France weren't France. This is a country where promoting cultural influence has been national policy for centuries, where controversial philosophers and showy new museums are symbols of pride and patriotism. Moreover, France has led the charge for a "cultural exception" that would allow governments to keep out foreign entertainment products while subsidizing their own. French officials, who believe such protectionism is essential for saving cultural diversity from the Hollywood juggernaut, once condemned Steven Spielberg's 1993 Jurassic Park as a "threat to French identity." They succeeded in enshrining the "cultural exception" concept in a 2005 UNESCO agreement, and regularly fight for it in international trade negotiations.