Note: I do not have my Masters in French Governance. The following is written from the point of view of an American learning all he can about the French system as he goes. If I gloss over important details or skip over something that jumps out to you, it might just be because I didn’t have the time to research it far enough to be able to explain it at this time. I, of course, welcome your comments after the article. There’s obviously a lot going on here…
It is my hope in this article to give you a basic understanding of what is going on with The Racine Report and how the state of the French comics market so often parallels the American one.
Franck Riester, Minister of Culture, had entrusted in April 2019 to Bruno Racine, master adviser at the Court of Auditors, a forward-looking mission on the state of changes that creative activities have experienced over the past thirty years. This global reflection should make it possible to adapt existing public policies in favor of artists, authors and creators.The French Ministry of Culture
On January 22, 2020, just prior to the beginning of the Angouleme Festival (FIBD), the French Minister of Culture released a 141 page report titled “L’auteur et l’acte de creation”. (“The Author and the Act of Creation.”)
It is more popularly known as “The Racine Report.” That’s named for Bruno Racine, the man who lead in the writing of it and is the former President of the National Library of France. He was tasked to do so by the Ministry of Culture.
The report is a series of almost two dozen recommendations of ways the French government can help its creative class of artists and authors to continue producing works of The Ninth Art in balance with the rest of the production chain. That is, how to keep the publishers and distributors from taking all of the money out of the system and leave the creators living in poverty. And how to reimagine their relationship in a way to promote a long term change so reports like this aren’t necessary again any time soon.
This is worth talking about now, because on Tuesday morning, February 18, the Minister of Culture will be announcing his actual proposals based on these recommendations. The world of BD authors collectively holds its breath awaiting the news. Many have threatened to boycott Angouleme 2021 if no action takes place.
And while I kind of doubt we’ll see Lewis Trondheim and Yoann teaming up to overturn cars in the streets of Paris to protest anything, the anger in the air is palpable coming out of France these days. They were already protesting in Angouleme. I don’t know what would be next, but I know it would be something.
(To be fair, I can picture Fabien Vehlmann standing atop boxes of leftover issues of Spirou magazines in the middle of the street, waving a humorously large red flag over his head, and singing songs of freedom and liberty until the police firehose him out of the way, over by where he had earlier overturned cars. Then Brice Cossu walks in, picks up the flag, and restarts the scene…)
Already, this doesn’t sound too different from the complaints of creatives in North America: low rates for serious amounts of work, publishers who eat up all the money, the difficulty of the new creators to break into the market, etc.
Image Comics was founded on the very principle that the publishers took all the money from the creative works and shared precious little of it with the creators. They may have been well paid for that month’s comic, but the t-shirts, hats, and posters got them nothing — not even a free sample. And that was before the glut of movies and tv shows happened.
And they were still freelancers with no bonuses like health care or matching 401(k)s. (Though, to be fair, I’m not sure if those were even a thing yet back in 1990. So let’s just say “pensions,” which are quickly becoming not a thing anymore today.)
Just take a look at GoFundMe on any given day to see how poorly so many creators of all ages and experiences are doing.
The long-running truth is that your best chance of breaking into comics is by having a supportive spouse with a good salary and strong benefits to you keep you alive long enough to start making a living in comics.
The Racine Report cites statistics such as that 53% of all creators live on less than minimum wage and 88% of creators have never had sick leave. These statistics come from a professional organization that includes BD creators called The League of Professional Authors. (Comics writers Dennis Bajram, the president of that group, recently announced his departure to get back to working on his comics again.)
Vive La Difference!
Now, at the risk of getting into something political here, let’s talk about the differences between America and France. This situation needs that context.
In France, comics are a big French thing. They’re honored as a strong part of their culture. They are, in some ways, protected. (There are price controls, for one example, on all books in France, including eBooks and BD albums. This is to water down Amazon’s influence and keep the money flowing into the book-making industry.)
In general, the people of the country lean further to the left politically than the U.S. There’s more of that idea of the federal safety net, the shared culture, the social contract, the welfare state, or however you want to phrase it.
In the U.S., the idea is that the playing field is wide open, every one has a chance, go do what you have to do to make your name and create a living, but the government is not there to support you. You need to do that.
That is why the recommendations in this report can be made in the first place. None seem terribly radical to a country that’s already supporting the arts as heavily as France is. These are just new ideas to maintain that set-up in different ways to help continue the support offered by the government in an ever-changing world.
It does, in some ways, contradict many of the moves the current president of the country is trying to move the country in, which could ultimately spell trouble for any proposal that comes of the report, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here..
The Racine Report as a document starts with the supposition that (A) it’s only getting harder to be a comics creator and maintain a healthy socio-economic status and (B) the French government ought to do something about it.
Let’s look now at those 23 recommendations. Remember, these ideas are taken on by the Minister of Culture as advice being offered by an independent third party reporter. The government is not mandated to follow any of the advice contained therein. There are merely suggestions. While I’m sure the author of the paper and all the creators who read it would like all of them to be followed, the political reality is likely that it won’t happen.
I’m going to annotate some of these recommendations as best I can as I go along. I am not an expert in French governance, as you’re about to see, but I’ve learned a bunch this weekend and want to share with you what I’ve found.
The English translations of these recommendations are provided by Google Translate, with little tweaks for clarity here and there by me.
The Recommendations: Section 1
The first step is to define what a “professional” artist-author is:
- Recommendation 1: Take into account criteria of professionalism to allow the authors to benefit from a coverage of their over-contributions by the social action commissions of AGESSA and MDA, when they do not fulfill the income condition and they request it.
AGESSA is a group that manages Social Security contributions by creatives. In other words, how much in taxes do creators need to pay on the licensing fees they earn? This goes for musicians, photographers, comic creators, etc. Think of it as your withholding taxes.
(There’s also the matter of a number of writers who are surprised they don’t have a pension at retirement because they didn’t realize they had to pay into it. Agessa never told them, they say. Agessa aggressively disagrees with the “smear campaign” instigated by the Racine Report, naturally.)
MDA (Maison des Artistes pour les arts graphiques or “House of Artists for the Graphic Arts”, I guess) is another social security organization in the French government that handles the taxation of authors/illustrators.
From what I can tell, the difference is that the MDA is for one-time-use artists. If you’re a creative freelancer not getting royalties from something, you pay taxes on it to the MDA. If you expect royalties, then you go through AGESSA.
You want to be able to join one of these groups, because then the state treats you like an employee and allows you to pay into the social security program and be granted, by law, certain intellectual property rights.
The trick is, you need to be selling enough work annually to qualify to join one of those two organizations.
All of this is to say, it’s important that there are strict definitions of what an artist-author is, and what qualifications one needs to join this system. Under the Racine Report recommendations, membership would be a bit more open for creators beyond just their annual take home billables.
It also sounds like the two organizations might be merging together in the future, which might simplify things a whole bunch.
- Recommendation 2: Simplify and soften the smoothing devices to take into account the income received by the artist-authors (calculation of contributions and charges) and allow them to spread their payments.
- Recommendation 3: Extend the scope of ancillary activities and increase the annual number of permitted activities as well as the ceiling for associated income, in order to better take into account the author’s activities in the city.
This sounds like, in IRS speak, adding some new deductions and expanding some tax brackets.
- Recommendation 4: Open the right to vote in professional elections to all artist-authors fulfilling the income condition (900 times the average value of the hourly minimum wage) in at least one of the past four years; secondly, provide for the modalities allowing artists-authors who do not meet the income condition but who can be regarded as professionals with regard to objective criteria to be associated with the elections, when they request it.
As of this writing, the French minimum wage is 10.15 Euro an hour. That means you need to have made 9135 Euros in one of the last four years to get that voting right.
The second part of this recommendation is to open up voting to others who request a vote who don’t fit that requirement but are “professional” enough. A new set of criteria should be created to properly assess who are serious creators deserving of help and protection by the government:
The nature of these criteria will have to be determined by the representative organizations of the artist-authors. In this respect, they could draw inspiration from the work of certain professional organizations which refer in particular to the training, the dissemination or not of a work, the period of time elapsed since the last work disseminated, the prices or aid for creation, the nobody benefited from or even exercising activities related to creation. These criteria must be known to all and their implementation give rise to motivated individual decisions in complete transparency.The Racine Report, p 54 – 55
This would create a system benefitting creators who haven’t paid into the system yet, which might not be popular in some political corners.
Section 2: Strengthening artist-authors collectively (i.e. Unionize)
This is where we get into unionization of BD creators at a level which sounds a lot like what Hollywood has going on. (There’s even a special section on page 40 of the report giving the Writer’s Guild of America as a case study.)
Again, does this sound familiar, North American readers? Wait, just picture in your head the National Endowment for the Arts suddenly calling for the creation of a comic book artists’ union and setting aside a couple million dollars to help. When you’re done laughing, read on…
Better yet — think of the number of comic book writers who have done enough writing in Hollywood to qualify for their Writer’s Guild card and the benefits that come with it, to help pay for their comics writing love. And then think of how many of them never came back to comics because it made no financial sense for them….
What this section basically amounts to is finding ways for the government to help creatives (of the artist-author variety) have collective management, in as many groups as they need. The Racine Report seems to believe it could be done with a dozen independent organizations, which would require two to three new employees on the French government’s side to help manage it all. That would only cost the French government two million Euros a year — and the Racine Report points to a specific fund where that money can easily be found, unused. (See page 58 of the report for details.)
- Recommendation 5: Quickly organize professional elections in each sector of artistic creation in order to provide artist-authors with representative organizations, funded by collective management organizations.
And by each “sector” here, they’re covering unions for different trades like photographers, dessinateurs (comic book artists), scenaristes (comic book writers), sculptors, novelists, etc.
- Recommendation 6: Generalize sectoral mediation bodies and strengthen their role by allowing them to intervene to resolve individual disputes between artist-authors and downstream actors (publishers, producers, distributors).
Give them the power to step between the creatives and the publishers to help mediate disputes.
Don’t you like the subtle way the report puts the creatives at the top of the food chain here? Everyone else is “downstream” from them. Without the creative, nothing else can happen.
- Recommendation 7: Create a National Council made up of representatives of artist-authors, collective management organizations and representatives of producers, publishers and distributors, responsible for formulating proposals and conducting collective negotiations on any subject concerning the condition artist-authors and their relationships with the exhibitors.
It’s a new Blue Ribbon panel! Governments love those, but it would provide an official venue to have these discussions in the future, rather than in tweet storms and clever drawings. Plus, the Council would have the ability to make changes, and not just report back suggestions eventually…
- Recommendation 8: Strengthen the representation of authors within the Higher Council for Literary and Artistic Property (CSPLA) and extend its missions to study the condition of artist-authors.
Utilize existing infrastructure.
- Recommendation 9: Create a delegation of authors at the Ministry of Culture as a single entry point, responsible for coordinating the policy of artist-authors of the Ministry of Culture and its public establishments, for piloting territorial cooperation led by the DRACs, to prepare the reforms concerning the artists-authors and to assure the secretariat of the National Council of the artists-authors.
Give the Ministry of Culture something to do, too! I’m starting to get into the weeds of various corners of the French government here. Like most national organizations running a country, the French government has all of its committees, commissions, ministries, boards, panels, groups, and more for any single topic. The further these recommendations go, the more redundancy it feels like there is.
That said, a “DRAC” is a regional cultural action directorate.
Yeah, don’t ask me, either. Trust me — France, like all governments, loves its four letter acronyms. The report includes a two page list of acronyms at the end that doesn’t even define DRAC, amongst others, which are defined inside the text already.
Here’s a look:
Now, As To That Union Thing…
This next one is the big one, to my eyes:
- Recommendation 10: Organize concertation and collective bargaining with a view to achieving, by the end of 2021:
* the determination of a benchmark proportional compensation rate for the authors according to the sectors,
* the implementation of increased transparency on the results of the operation of their works, primarily on sales monitoring,
* the introduction into the intellectual property code of a contract for order remunerating in copyright the working time linked to the creative activity,
* the dissemination of good professional practices, in the sense of better balance in the relationship between artist-authors and the end of creation, as well as an encouragement of diversity in creation.
There’s a lot in there, but once you see “collective bargaining”, it all falls into place. It’s the cartoonist’s union. (Yes, it also covers other professions, but this is a comic book-focused website.)
It also includes better publisher accounting of sales figures and a change in the way intellectual property is handled (which is an article all its own that I’m still trying to wrap my head around).
If nothing else, such a major change in the industry in such a short time span (the report calls for this by the end of 2021) would surely be seen by some in North America as a model to imitate.
Oh, and one more thing:
- Recommendation 11: Create an observatory within the National Council of artist-authors in order to implement refined and reliable statistical and qualitative monitoring.
That’ll help keep the publishers honest. I keep going back to the Hollywood situation and the way they can still, to this day, cook the books in clever ways. This might be one such way to make it harder, but color me cynical…
Intermission: Random Racine Report Graph
This one comes from page 21 of the report. It shows the change in revenues on average per artist in each sector tracked (through AGESSA and MDA) from 2001 to 2017:
It’s been a tough time to be a creative, for sure.
To be fair, other charts show dips in various totals, but also show numbers that show a certain amount of recovery from the last 5 – 7 years or so, though still nowhere back up to where they once were. Statistics are funny things.
2001 is at the very beginning days of the commercial internet, though. And while the Kindle and large enough bandwidth to make pirating all the things (video) possible was still a few years away, the trends were already pointing down.
I wonder what the sculptors did to keep their rates up? Are there just fewer of them now, so they’re getting more of the money to themselves? (Don’t ask me what “plasticiens” are. Is there an art to working with plastic? Action figure makers?)
I’m only surprised photographers’ revenues aren’t down even more, given how everyone owns an SLR or a camera on their phone that takes such amazing pictures today.
Comic book artists are the dessinateurs at the end, down 7% over the course of the 16 years tracked by this report.
Audio/Visual authors are down 27%. Yikes!
Section 3: Comfort the artist-author individually
Some of these are kind of vague and hand-wavey.
- Recommendation 12: Increase by redeployment the share of aid granted directly to artist-authors in all public aid allocated to culture.
- Recommendation 13: Clarify article L. 324-17 of the CPI by providing for a minimum share of cultural artistic action credits to be used by CMOs in direct support of authors.
- Recommendation 14: Facilitate access to the rules applicable to artist-authors by creating an information portal managed by the Ministry of Culture in conjunction with the Directorate of Social Security and the Ministry of Economy and Finance .
- Recommendation 15: Ensure that all social security organizations know the rules applicable to artist-authors and have a resource person identified as a referent.
- Recommendation 16: Generalize without delay the right of representation to all temporary exhibitions in public institutions.
- Recommendation 17: Establish, in partnership with the CNL and SOFIA, remuneration for authors of comics and children’s literature, as part of their participation in fairs and festivals.
SOFIA is Société Française des Intérêts des Auteurs de l’Ecrit (The French Society for the Interests of Authors of Writing). It’s a collective management group for published authors of books, and books only. That included cartoonists and illustrators. They help authors get paid for digital copies and loans of their books.
CNL would be the Centre National du Livre, which is a government-funded organization set up through the Ministry of Culture to support projects at every step of the book chain, whether it be creators, publishers, librarians, event organizers, or more. They provide grants to thousands of projects each year.
In other words, this recommendation is basically for the French government to put together all of its various groups to work on supporting the creators participating in the fairs and festivals they’re already supporting. Don’t just fund the organizations — help fund the creators participating in them.
Most of this is just about using the infrastructure that’s already there and making sure everyone knows each other and is helping each other out more actively.
- Recommendation 18: Condition the allocation of public aid to compliance with the rules and good practices relating to artist-authors.
- Recommendation 19: Identify the factors of inequality among artist-authors, according to social, geographic or gender origin, and put in place suitable measures to neutralize their effects.
The diversity clause.
- Recommendation 20: Ensure that students of arts education establishments receive training in the legal, administrative and business aspects of their future careers.
Isn’t this a failing of every art school ever?
- Recommendation 21: Provide aid mechanisms likely to support artist-authors over time and study in particular, in sectors where this would be relevant, the possibility of setting up a system comparable to commissioners from Scandinavian countries .
I’m not familiar with the Scandinavian system they’re referring to here. If anyone has a link to an explanation, please drop it below. Thanks!
- Recommendation 22: Strengthen and multiply international exchange programs for the benefit of artist-authors, art critics, commissioners of expositions, and curators.
Hey, international art critics! I qualify! Someone exchange me, quick!
- Recommendation 23: Organize an event or a cycle of exhibitions of national scope around contemporary creation in France aiming in particular to show its vitality and its territorial diversity.
This sounds a bit like what they’re already doing with the events surrounding 2020: The Year of the BD.
Order of Operations
The entire Racine Report runs 141 pages, but the bulk of it is in the first half. The second half is a lot of appendices and background information.
Amongst that is the suggested order in which these suggestions might be taken.
Immediately, they suggest tackling recommendations #2, #15, and #16. That includes the recommendation for spreading out payments, ensuring the current organizations know what they’re talking about, and giving the right of representation to certain exhibitions.
Those are the easiest wins and the lowest-lying fruits on the tree, so to speak.
After that, things are broken up into the first and second halves of 2020, and the first half of 2021. All the hard core unionization stuff — setting pay rates, greater transparency, etc. is saved for the end after merely creating the unions happens in the last half of 2020. Also at the end is the compiling of diversity statistics and government-sponsored festivals.
It makes sense to get some quick and easy wins, then start building the organizations and pieces in the government that you need, and then establish the programs that those new organizations can implement.
What To Look Out For Next
First, let’s see what the Minister of Culture proposes on 18 February. This report has been mostly well received by the creative community in France that I’ve seen in various social media, but it’s always been with the caveat of “But will any of the recommendations happen?”
The Minister needs to make those proposals, and then action needs to be taken on them to realize them. That takes this from a scholarly exercise to an exercise in political reality and the various lobbying efforts that might get thrown against it.
Even if all of these recommendations turn into proposals, there’s going to be a lot of debates and a lot of lobbying in both directions.
I think the end of 2021 will turn out to be a very optimistic time frame. I don’t think the publishers want to deal with a unionized work force, and if it were to happen, they’d try to delay it as much as possible…
From a North American perspective, we have many of the same issues in our comics industry. It’s a completely different societal norm to start off from, though. Comics aren’t a protected institution supported by the federal government in any way, for example. But the attitudes of creatives line up equally.
In my Twitter feed of comic creators, the “union” word shows up more frequently in recent years. I think it’ll be a ten times harder concept to pass over here than in a country like France, but it’s clear that support is growing for it. Perhaps the Racine Report leads the way as a model for how it could be done in North America?
Or, perhaps, the Minister’s proposals skip over all of that, make only the most modest and minor change suggestions, and the world of BD creators flip over the table and start burning cars in the streets, after all?
We shall soon see…
Sources and Links
Being a collection of websites I visited in the course of writing this article, some of which were previously linked but I’m keeping them here, as well:
France24 Coverage of The Racine Report
The Racine Report on the Ministry of Culture’s website
France’s Publishing Grants and Prizes for translators, American publishers, and more
An explainer: AGESSA vs. MDA
The League of Professional Authors’ Response to The Racine Report (with Brice Cossu illustrations!)
Dennis Bajram steps down as President of the League of Professional Authors
New President Samantha Bailly explains why it’s important to remunerate at the act of creation (a Twitter thread)
Publisher Doesn’t Want to Publish Less Books; In Other News, Water is Wet
SOFIA: Paying You for Making Digital Copies/Loans of Your Books
CNL: French government effort to sponsor books from all angles: creators/publishers/distributors/festivals/etc.
The French Welfare State [The Guardian article]