Netflix is battling to overcome French resistance

Image: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
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The French have a long and proud tradition of pretending they don’t like the US and everything it stands for. Of course, it’s not really true: the Champs-Élysées has basically devolved into a giant advertisement for low-quality American fashion; “très Brooklyn” is actually a thing; even McDonald’s has finally figured out how to make money in the country.

The latest American consumer brand attempting to crack the French market is Netflix. Reed Hastings’s much-hyped online streaming company went live in France this week, part of its biggest international expansion yet (it is also going to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, and Luxembourg). Not surprisingly, the company is already encountering (faux?) resistance.

On one level expansion into France makes sense for Netflix; the country has one of the highest broadband penetration rates in the developed world, according to the OECD. And yet, it’s still a risky foray into foreign territory. Politicians in France are fiercely protective of their language and culture; strict laws force TV companies to invest heavily in local content (up to 40% of content must be from France); and domestic pay TV companies already offer their own online streaming services.

By basing its corporate headquarters in Amsterdam, Netflix is evading France’s content restrictions and taxes on local media. Even so, it decided to commission one French language, original series, Marseille, which Netflix describes as ”an eight episode tale of power, corruption and redemption.” Local producers are concerned that by avoiding domestic taxes that help fund local productions, Netflix could indirectly threaten their business.

Local cable companies have also been quick to respond. For example, Numericable launched its own (French) Netflix-style, video-on-demand service this week, on the day of Netflix’s launch. Orange, the country’s biggest pay TV/broadband company, is refusing to include Netflix in its set-top boxes. That said, Bouygues, the third largest pay TV/broadband company, has decided it will.

In the end, Netflix’s American content may be what the French want most. As the Wall Street Journal points out (paywall), the company has sewn up licenses to air high-profile shows in France that it does not offer in the US. These shows, including Fargo, Modern Family and the Big Bang Theory, are ”one of the biggest arrows in [Netflix’s] quiver,” according to the Journal. Despite the qualms about US culture, The Big Bang Theory is surprisingly huge in France.