France goes to the polls this Sunday for the first round of presidential elections. In a campaign dominated by the economy,immigration and unemployment, candidates have also found time to court the cinema world too.

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In May 1968, Claude Lelouch, together with Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Louis Malle, stormed the Cannes Film Festival in an act of solidarity with the left-wing student protests of the time, closing it down.

Last Sunday, Lelouch, now 74, took to the stage at a political rally in Paris in support of centre-right French President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of the first round of presidential elections on April 22.

“Looking at the script for the next five years, we’re going to need a really good director. I’m convinced that director is Nicolas,” the veteran filmmaker told the crowd gathered in the Place de la Concorde.

It is unlikely that Sarkozy will be the “director” controlling France’s fate for the next five years.

Polls forecast socialist candidate François Hollande is set to win a likely second round run-off on May 6, sweeping the Socialists to power for the first time in 17 years.  

Importance of cinema

But Lelouche’s presence at Sunday’s rally is just one example of the cinema world’s high profile in French politics.

The days of a leftwing, politically engaged cinema scene — personified by the likes of Godard and Truffaut — may be a thing of the past but the French film world still has political clout… especially when it comes to defending the cultural exception-inspired subsidies and quotas underpinning it.

In an election dominated by the economy, immigration and unemployment, the leading candidates have also taken time to tackle issues worrying the film industry.

“We might complain to the contrary but politicians in France talk a lot more about the culture than elsewhere in the world,” says Pascal Rogard, head of the Society of Authors and Composer of Dramatic Works (SACD) - France’s equivalent to the Writers Guild of America.

Last week, with ten days to go to the first round, Sarkozy stopped by SACD for a “working lunch” with filmmakers Lelouche, Jean-Jacques Beineix, Jean-Claude Carrière, Gérard Krawczyk, Radu Mihaileanu and Bertrand Tavernier.  

Hollande, meanwhile, put in a high-profile appearance at the Paris Book Fair in March, followed by a star-studded evening devoted to the Socialists’ cultural agenda at the Cirque d’Hiver theatre, attended by singer Juliette Greco, actor Michel Piccoli and directors Abdellatif Kechiche and Beineix.

“The French are very attached to culture,” explains Rogard  “Any politician whose manifesto does not include culture will not get very far.”

Florence Gastaud, managing director of the Association of Authors, Directors and Producers (L’ARP), suggests this attentiveness is also born out of a sort of “fear” of filmmakers.

“The candidates know that they are capable of shouting really loudly and capturing the public’s attention so it’s better to listen to what they’ve got to say before they start yelling,” explains the former lawyer who worked in the cabinets of two socialist politicians before taking on the L’ARP role.

She adds: “With the starification of cinema, directors have lost some of their influence but the Oscars and the record box office figures last year have helped… when you go to see the president with the likes of Michel Hazanavicius it has an impact.”

During Sarkozy’s reign, L’ARP and SACD have successfully blocked attempts by his centre-right UMP party to bump up the preferential VAT rate of Canal+ to 19.6% from 5.5% in 2010 and also prevented a move to cap the National Cinema Centre’s budget late last year.

Lobbying season

Alongside other cinema bodies such as the Société des Réalisateurs (SRF) and the producers union UPF, they have stepped up their lobbying activities during the election campaign to highlight the challenges the digital revolution poses for the film industry.

“We’ve been keeping up the pressure, doing something on an almost weekly basis to make sure the candidates don’t stop talking culture,” says Gastaud.

At the end of March they launched a high profile call for new measures to support a legal digital offering of film, music and literature.

Their demands included a modification of France’s strict media chronology rules and a lowering of VAT for digitally distributed content from the current 19.6% to 7%, in line with the beneficial tariffs applied to books and cinema tickets.

Other issues on the table include the future of Sarkozy’s controversial anti-piracy law known as the Hadopi, which punishes individual offenders by stripping them of Internet access.

Ironically, the Socialist Party fell foul of the traditionally left-leaning film world last year when leading socialist politicians proposed abolishing Hadopi in favour of a so-called “global license” under which Internet users pay a one-off fee. SACD says this contravenes fundamental copyright laws.

In producer-led initiative, Luc Besson, Eric Almayer, Alain Terzian, Patrick Sobelman, Anne-Dominique Toussaint and Marie Masmonteil launched Le Collectif des 95 in early March– so-called because the producer unions it represents account for 95% of French production.

Its radical manifesto demanded VOD players such as iTunes, Google TV and Amazon be obliged to pre-finance films in the same way French broadcasters are obliged to make contributions.

“The film world may not be engaged along ideological or partisan lines anymore but when it comes to defending the system underpinning its survival it knows how to mobilize,” says Rogard.