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France’s New Culture Minister Rachida Dati Makes a Splash in Film Industry, Welcoming Vitriolic Criticism: ‘My Great Weapon Is Combativeness’

This week’s surprise news of conservative politician Rachida Dati becoming France’s new Culture Minister provoked an earthquake within the country’s predominantly left-leaning film and TV industry.

Dati was appointed on Jan. 11 to succeed Rima Abdul Malak as Culture Minister as part of a reshuffle of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, which also saw 34-year-old Gabriel Attal becoming Prime Minister.

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A combative straight shooter with an acerbic of humor and a definite sense of style, Dati is currently mayor of the posh 7th arrondissement where she regularly mingles with stars residing in the neighborhood. But her appointment as Culture Minister was welcomed with vitriolic headlines across the media and was called out by a large chunk of the film and TV biz as a casting error. The high profile politician is seen as a potential threat to the industry’s unique model of “cultural exception,” where independent, diverse filmmaking is nurtured through subsidies, along with other government-backed schemes.

Last time an appointment triggered such harsh reactions from France’s creative industries was in 2019, when former producer and financier Dominique Boutonnat was named president of the National Film Board. Boutonnat, who was appointed by Macron and is now serving a second mandate, had just released a report on the profitability of local movies and had called for a greater input from private financing sources.

Triet alluded to this perceived ideological shift in her fiery speech (which may have caused her to be snubbed by France’s Oscar committee) at the Cannes Film Festival upon receiving the Palme d’Or, blaming Emmanuel Macron’s “neoliberal government” for supporting the “commercialization of culture” and “breaking France’s cultural exception.”

With the arrival of Dati, a former magistrate who previously served as Justice Minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, many folks in the French industry believe that Triet’s words may turn out to be somewhat prophetic.

Dati appeared to be well aware of the criticism and attempted to diffuse concerns during her handover speech, when she said “everyone knows that I like to fight, so I will always be there to defend this cultural exception.”

“I understand that it may surprise you but [my appointment] meets a need: The need of popular France to feel represented,” said Dati. “My great weapon is combativeness and I will put it at the service of culture, its representatives, its professionals, its artists and the French who need more culture and access to this culture.”

Dati, who is currently under investigation in a corruption case involving Carlos Ghosn, the disgraced former Nissan CEO, reacted to the backlash in an interview with Le Parisien over the weekend, saying that she was being slammed because she comes from a lower class. “For those who wonder if I read books, they should know that I had access to them in my project… I’m not ashamed of saying it,” said Dati, whose parents emigrated to France from Algeria and Morocco and raised her and her 11 siblings in a housing project in Burgundy.

But Dati is also the fifth Culture Minister appointed in seven years, since Macron became president in 2017. French producer Michael Gentile argues that Macron “isn’t interested by culture and is using the minister as a toy.” Abdul Malak, who only served for two years, was well liked by the industry and was close to talent. The timing of her exit raised eyebrows, happening only weeks after she voiced her disapproval of the controversial immigration bill endorsed by Macron’s government and passed by the Senate last month, and after saying on French TV that Gerard Depardieu could potentially see his Legion of Honor get revoked amid new accusations of sexual assault. Macron was visibly upset when addressing Malak’s comments in a TV interview two days later, saying that she had spoken too fast and that Depardieu’s Legion of Honor would not be stripped.

“[Malak] was doing a proper job, so if she’s paying her position on Depardieu, it’s frankly shameful,” said Gentile.

“Happening” actor Anna Mouglalis also had a dismayed reaction when a reporter broke the news to her live on camera on Thursday evening. “Culture has been destroyed and culture’s role is to resist,” said Mouglalis, an outspoken feminist. “We’re going through a cultural revolution…and no matter who is the culture minister, it will happen.”

But others in the industry are hopeful that having such a prominent political figure in this role means that culture will be high up on the agenda. David Thion, the producer of “Anatomy of a Fall,” points out that Dati is ranked seventh in the protocol order of the reshuffled government, higher than her predecessor, meaning that she will have “political power to take action.”

“We’ll see how she will use this power, what will be her priorities, her cultural projects, who she surrounds with, and all this is going to take shape in the next six months,” said Thion, who just attended the Golden Globes where “Anatomy of a Fall” won best foreign-language film and best screenplay. “It’s great to have people who love culture, but when they don’t ‘weigh’ enough, politically speaking, not much happens.”

Thion said the French film landscape is facing challenges because “theatrical admissions are increasingly concentrated on a smaller number of movies with many films struggling to get attention.”

“It’s important that we continue to have this diversity and that we don’t limit ourselves to movies that we think will be the most profitable and have the biggest audience,” Thion said, “because it’s impossible to predict success, as we saw with ‘Anatomy of a Fall’ — some smaller films on though or dark subjects can be surprise hits, too.”

Charles Gillibert, the producer of “Annette” and president of Les Films du Losange, says “once we’ve come to term with the reality that we’ll probably never have another culture minister like André Marlaux and Jack Lang who conceives culture like a lifestyle, it seems that [Dati] could fight efficiently to obtain necessary budgets and put culture at the center of societal debates, and defend popular culture — she could obtain more results than her predecessors,” said Gillibert.

As another French film veteran who heads a major institution commented, “Even the most right wing ministers who were initially reticent to the French film eco-system — or so-called French cultural exception — ended up defending it because it works. The best proof we have right now is ‘Anatomy of a Fall.'”

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