The choice of Christian Carion's World War Idrama Merry Christmas as thecountry's submission to the foreign language category of the Oscars has sparkedintense debate in France.

On September 19, support body the CNC announcedthat a seven member selection committee had chosen Merry Christmas. The film, however, had yet to sell a singleticket. The choice also raised eyebrows given that Luc Jacquet's smash hit March Of The Penguins was considered ashoo-in.

Now deeper rumblings have begun. Is Merry Christmas eligible for a slot' Wasthe choice politically motivated' Howmuch influence did the US distributor have' What about the other films' And,ultimately, is this all just much ado about nothing'

According to the Academy's official criteria, afilm must have been released in at least one theatre for seven consecutive daysbetween October 1, 2004 and September 30, 2005. Although Merry Christmas' official release date is November 9, it iscurrently playing a one week packed house technical run in the north of France.The Academy also stipulates an ad campaign which is "normal and customary" tothe industry.

Further, an unofficial CNC rule says a film mustsell 200,000 tickets before becoming eligible for consideration. The CNC saysthat the admissions rule is merely a suggestion to help the committee whittledown the field.

But, Wild Bunch chief Vincent Maraval whohandled international sales on March OfThe Penguins says CNC chief Veronique Cayla and Unifrance presidentMargaret Menegoz told him that the suggestion was made, in part, to "avoidtechnical releases."

This week, the Independent Producers Union (SPI)fired off a "legal note" to the culture minister's office voicing its dismay,though Marie Masmonteil, SPI president, admits they don't have any legalfooting since the admissions rule is not official. But, she believes that a "normal and customary" ad campaign meansa national campaign which distributor UGC won't begin until next month.

MerryChristmas, a look at one holiday during World War I whereopposing sides laid down their arms in order to share in celebration, wasscreened out of competition in Cannes to strong reviews and was one of the mosthotly contested films in the festival. It ultimately sold to Sony PicturesClassics (SPC) for US, UK, Italy and Latin America.

Some believe its selection is politicallymotivated. The Oscar committee, which includes such industry heavyweights asCannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux and Menegoz, "had a really profounddiscussion," according to one insider.

But Masmonteil adds, "I don't think the film waschosen so it can win. It cost a lot, puts Franco-German cooperation in theforeground and the culture minister walked up the red carpet with it!"

As fate would have it, Masmonteil is also theproducer of the film which lost out to MerryChristmas 4 votes to 3 in the committee election: Live And Become by Radu Milhaileanu. (To show how complex thesituation is, it's also worth noting that Menegoz's Les Films de Losangereleased Live And Become in France.)This does not mean that she has an axe to grind, though, "I'm not contestingthat it's a beautiful film. It just has a lesser chance at winning than ourfilm or another."

As for a US distributor's potential influence,one executive who worked with another of the shortlisted films says, "TheUS distributor says, 'we can virtually guarantee you a nomination.' It's whatdistributors do, they are very good at that. I would have wanted them to do itfor us too."

Neil Friedman, head of US distributor Menemsha which is handling Live And Become says his film should have been a "no brainer" given audience reaction in Toronto and Telluride, two good harbingers of Academy predilections. But, he believes the Academy ultimately, "vote for film they like best and can't be lobbied. They would rather be the author of a discovery than be told what to do."

Francois Yon, co-founder of sales house FilmsDistribution which sold Merry Chrsitmas to SPC - and whichcoincidentally also handled Live AndBecome - says, Sony, "is very confident. France usually goes for the popular vote, but this time they have really thought it out."

Meanwhile, other films which were consideredfrontrunners for the slot included Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My HeartSkipped Cedric Klapisch's hit RussianDolls and the Penguins

Jean-Francois Camilleri, head of Buena Vista InternationalFrance which co-produced and released Penguins locally is disappointedin the choice, "It wouldn't have changed anything for us financially but thefilm could have represented France - finally a foreign film that Americanslove. It's too bad but it's not the end of the world, it just proves thestupidity of French politics in this profession. No one has seen (Merry Christmas) except the people at Cannes, what good does that do'"

Meanwhile, another point has been raised by SPIconcerning release windows. There is concern that by allowing Merry Christmas to compete, technicalrelease dates will be used as substitutes for national releases whencalculating windows. If so, it could wreak havoc with the broadcast and DVDsectors. However, the CNC contends thatfor this purpose, the only date that matters is the "national release date tothe exclusion of any sneak preview or exceptional releases even those which arenot free of charge."

Whatever the outcome, Masmonteil feels stronglythat the rules should be clarified. "We can't do anything about this, but don'ttake us for idiots," she laments.

Yon concedes, "What should come out of this isto try to find a better way to organise. The decision process can be changed."

For now, he adds, "No one is going to ask foranother vote. People aren't stupid, it would be damaging. I mean, do you think Nowhere In Africa had popular German support'"