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France isn’t afraid to tangle with the internet’s giants. Within a week of the French privacy commission threatening Google with fines and sanctions, lawmakers have passed a law that will restrict online booksellers from offering free shipping. And this in addition to the 5 percent maximum discount allowed on books in France.
Just as American states are slowly opting to tax Amazon in defense of their resident brick-and-mortars, the lower chamber of French parliament unanimously voted for a bill that is supposed to protect France’s 2,500 to 3,000 independent bookstores, as well as smaller independent sellers online who can’t compete with Amazon’s volume.
Unlike America, this protectionist, price-raising, business-stifling bill was proposed by the center-right UMP, and embraced by the Socialist Party government. I can’t recall an American politician ever talking about book publishers, much less saying something like, “the book remains a unique cultural artifact, irreducible to a solely commercial dimension,” like the French minister of culture did in 2008.
Book prices in France are closely regulated, dating back to a 1981 law that was supposed to protect small booksellers from big stores. That law, known as the “Lang law,” holds that the publisher sets the price of the book and booksellers are not allowed to sell it for any less than 95 percent of that price, hence the maximum discount of 5 percent. In 2011, France voted to extend the Lang law to e-books. The new regulation will become another amendment to the Lang law, pending its vote in the Senate.
France has already taken action against Amazon’s pernicious free shipping dating back to 2004, when the French Booksellers Union accused Amazon of selling books too cheaply. Rather than ending free shipping, Amazon opted to pay the daily thousand-euro fine instead.
In response to this latest vote, Amazon said the law would hurt publishers and readers looking for books from publishers’ back catalogs and smaller presses. "All measures that aim to raise the price of books sold online will curb the ability of French people to buy cultural works and discriminates against those who buy online," Amazon told the AFP.
French politicians have also been vocal critics of Amazon for basing its French operations in bordering Luxembourg, which allows the company to dodge most of France’s taxes. The company has responded that going through a Luxembourg holding company is totally legal under European laws.
In spite of the legislative moves against online booksellers, French readers are, like the rest of the world, turning to the internet to buy books in growing numbers—17 percent of all book purchases were made online last year. This is a much smaller percentage than the 43.8 percent of American books that are bought online, but it’s an upward trend. The overall trend tended to buying less books in general, though. If that continues, it doesn't really matter how much Amazon is charging.