Quotas killed the radio star: French DJs rebel against prescribed playlists

Stations are boycotting the law requiring francophone tracks to make up 40% of radio airplay – but there is a deeper malaise, with a huge decline in French-language music

For a while this week, France’s commercial radio sounded a bit less French as independent stations and leading broadcasters – including Europe 1, RFM, NRJ and RTL – staged a 24-hour boycott of the law that for 20-odd years has ensured nearly half the music played on French radio is, indeed, in French.

In a bid to halt the seemingly unstoppable and apparently unbearable advance of English in many areas of Gallic life, in 1994 the then French culture minister, Jacques Toubon, passed a series of laws effectively outlawing the use of untranslated English vocabulary in fields such as education, business and advertising.

Among the measures that aimed not just to protect the French language but also to encourage homegrown talent was a requirement that at least 40% of songs played on radio stations must be in French.

It is a rule that has long been unpopular with broadcasters, who would quite like to compile their playlists themselves. As the boss of Oui FM, Emmanuel Rials, told Le Monde: “It’s not for politicians to tell us what we can and can’t play.”

But they have finally been moved to protest by an amendment to the 1994 law tabled by the current culture minister, Fleur Pellerin. Prompted by concerns – voiced loudly by the record companies – that radios are depriving the airwaves of diversity and new acts by filling their 40% quota with the same songs, the change means the 10 most-played French-language songs on each station must now make up no more than half its francophone quota.

The outraged broadcasters see this not just as a further attack on their commercial freedoms. It is also, they argue, putting the interests of the music industry ahead of those of commercial radio – and will send even more listeners off to streaming services such as Spotify and Deezer, where they can listen to what they like.

But behind the row lies an even deeper malaise. Because leaving aside commercial considerations, one of the reasons French radio stations are playing the same French songs is that they don’t have as many of them to choose from: according to some estimates, the number of songs recorded in French last year fell by as much as half, with the decline since 2003 put at an alarming 66%.

Worse, according to some (disputed) industry estimates, as much as 80% of French music may now be produced in English, with not just established artists such as Daft Punk, David Guetta and Charlotte Gainsbourg opting for the greater international exposure it gives them, but a raft of newcomers – acts including Lilly Wood and the Prick, Cats on Trees, Yodelice, Skip The Use, Griefjoy and Deportivo – performing wholly or partly in English.

C’est lamentable, n’est-ce pas?


Jon Henley

The GuardianTramp

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