This tale is a familiar one to bibliophiles around the world, as the frail arsenals of independent bookstores surrender to the triple threat of Amazon, e-books, and competition from other media. Here in France, though, the story diverges from the script. Barely had the threat to Delamain been announced when author and journalist Angelo Rinaldi pledged to do all he could to prevent the bookstore’s closing. “It’s always when grandmother is sick that you realize how much you loved her,” he told Le Figaro last week. Rinaldi plans to spread the word among his colleagues at the Académie Française when it reconvenes on September 25.
Rinaldi was joined by the Minister of Culture herself, Fleur Pellerin, who visited the bookstore in person to assure the staff of her full support. The president of the Centre National du Livre, Vincent Monadé, demanded a meeting with Constellation Hotel Holdings. Several days later, the Hôtel du Louvre, feeling the pressure, released a statement saying that the Qatari holding company would take into consideration “the specific activity of its renter as well as the many years in which it has occupied the site.”
“I hope, now, that this is going to be translated into action,” said Monadé to Le Figaro.
It's difficult to imagine the shuttering of a bookstore causing a similar outcry anywhere else—not to mention direct government involvement in the matter of a private lease. This has something to do with what the French call l’exception culturelle. It doesn't just mean cultural exceptionalism; the phrase refers more precisely to the notion that cultural goods should not be subject to the whims of the free market—and should be protected from the homogenizing onslaught of global, and in particular American, cultural imperialism.
In the U.S., such a policy would smack of protectionism. The French prefer to justify it in terms of maintaining “cultural diversity.” L'exception culturelle is the source of production quotas for radio programs made in France. It’s the reason the initial arrival of Netflix executives in France was met with a letter from producers bemoaning the “implosion of our cultural model.” And in a more general sense, it is part of a conviction in France—albeit one increasingly debated—that cultural heritage is a good with its own internal logic and value system, one that the government has the duty not only to protect but to actively promote. France even entombs its most celebrated literary and cultural figures, among other “great men” (and now women), in the Panthéon in Paris.
In the publishing sphere, l'exception culturelle morphs from a committed ideal into concrete policy. It has allowed the French to mount a challenge to the digital revolution in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.
As an independent bookstore, the Librairie Delamain already receives a partial merchandising subsidy—5,000 euros in 2013—from the Centre National du Livre. In 2013, the Ministry of Culture announced a further injection of 5 million euros into the independent bookstore industry, as well as the creation of a new bureaucratic position (the stereotypical solution to all French problems)—the “book arbitrator”—who could, in cases like this one, intervene in legal disputes without forcing the small businesses to involve themselves in expensive litigation. Booksellers like Delamain are also aided by the loi Lang, a 1981 law named after a former minister of culture, which limits discounts on books to 5 percent of their cover price. Earlier this summer, a so-called “anti-Amazon” amendment extended this limit to online booksellers and prohibits them from offering free shipping on reduced-price books.