Since 1991, France has passed three laws that have made the nation the most restrictive advertising market in Europe-if not the world-in several areas.
"These three laws have made France the exception in the advertising world and have made us outcasts," said Jacques Bille, VP of the French Association of Advertising Agencies. "They prevent advertisers from operating as they do everywhere else in the world, and now even limit the way they choose to express themselves ... Big companies looking for a headquarters for new European campaigns are going to think twice before choosing France."
The 1991 Evin law banned most advertising for alcohol and tobacco products. The 1993 Sapin law banned the standard 15% commission, eliminated most other media revenues and mandated documentation of transactions.
"Invoicing, billing and handling contracts have become a giant administrative nightmare" because of the law, said BBDO Europe's Paris-based Agency Coordinator Karen Grant.
Now, with the impending Toubon law requiring the French language in advertising, even the manner of communication is being legislated. The law will take effect later this summer.
Mr. Bille hopes some of the damage can be undone by attacking legislation as incompatible with European Union laws.
"The Toubon law violates European Union laws regarding the free circulation of information and the freedom of expression," he said. "Evin also goes against EU rules and beyond its norms."
The degree of marketers' dissatisfaction is directly related to the effect on their businesses.
"The Evin law makes communicating and marketing in France very difficult for us," said Richard Owen, strategic affairs controller at Guinness, London. "Being so much more restrictive than other European laws, the Evin law not only proves that the single market does not yet exist, it also blocks its creation."
Mr. Owen thinks the Toubon law, too, is a "shortsighted and wrong-minded" measure. "No one forced English expressions on the French through marketing. This was the choice of a people who freely adopted words like le parking, le weekend and le camping."
Elena Cartasegna, ad manager for Nike Europe in the Netherlands, considered the Toubon law intrusive and "definitely poses obstacles for us." But she didn't see it as a threat to the marketer's "Just do it" theme, which she said will be further adapted to respect the law.
"If we had our way, we'd use `Just do it' by itself," Ms. Cartasegna said. "But I don't think it will force us to rethink our French campaigns more than in other markets. Our pan-European campaigns are already adapted differently to each market, because we understand that explaining what `Just do it' means in advertising is part of our job."
One bright spot is that the Toubon law can't require translation of registered brand names. That also means companies like Nike that have registered famous ad slogans as international trademarks may find their campaigns as exempt as their brand names.
Alain Grange-Cabane, VP of France's Union of Advertisers, is more understanding of the laws.
"Yes, advertising is over-regulated, but we have to face the fact that the government stepped in because we failed at self-regulation," he said. "The previous [media buying] situation had no rules and had become unbearable. We do not like the Evin and Toubon laws, but they are restrictions that you find on various subjects in every country."
Saatchi France President Didier Colmet-Daage agreed: "Every country has its peculiarities ... the Italian ban on tobacco is even tougher than ours; we still do not allow ads for supermarkets on TV."
He also believes the government will amend the laws once it sees how they affect marketing.
That has already happened. Last month, the government liberalized the Evin law by easing a ban on outdoor ads of alcohol. That relaxation, said Publicis President Maurice Levy, may extend to the other laws.
"The unfortunate reaction to what had been an unregulated activity was vast over-regulation," he said. "I feel confident that we'll now see it swing toward greater liberalism. No one wants to see France punished by its own laws."
Not only did Pierre de Plas, former president of TBWA de Plas France, agree that liberalization is unavoidable, but he joked that future "crazy legislation" has been undermined by the Toubon law.
"The good thing about the Toubon law," he jested, "is that it makes it impossible for [politicians] to come up with anything more stupid. More stupid doesn't exist."