October 4, 2013

French lawmakers halt Amazon’s free deliveries


French lawmakers slammed Amazon and bolstered independent booksellers by voting to end the online giant’s ability to provide free delivery on already discounted items.

Yesterday, in what France 24 described as a “rare show of unity,” French lawmakers from both the Socialist Party and the conservative Union for a Popular Movement passed a law which prevents Amazon from shipping already discounted books for free. The move comes months after Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti unveiled a series of multi-million-Euro programs intended to support struggling independent bookstores.

The French government first expressed interest in passing such a law back in June, after a number of independent booksellers complained that Amazon’s ability to ship books for free gave them an unfair competitive advantage.

French book prices are regulated by the Lang Law, which mandates that retailers can only discount new books by up to 5%. Yesterday, French lawmakers amended that law for the first time in 32 years. The Lang Law was initially passed to protect small bookstores from large chains.

The French government—and Filippetti in particular—have been increasingly vocal about Amazon’s business practices over the past several months. In June, Filippetti said, “everyone has had enough of Amazon which, through dumping practices, smashes prices to penetrate markets only to then raise prices again once they are in a situation of quasi-monopoly” and accused Amazon of being a “destroyer of bookshops.” Guillaume Husson, of the booksellers union, Syndicat de la librairie française, praised the new bill, saying “putting some balance back into the conditions of competition.”

France has 3,000 independent bookstores—three times as many as the UK—and has a long tradition of protecting its literary and cultural industries. In the 1990s, France famously introduced the concept of  l’exception culturelle to treat cultural and commercial products differently: under the policy French art is subsidized, while cultural imports are subject to quotas and other restrictions.
Unsurprisingly, Amazon immediately fired back in a statement, accusing the French government of “discrimination against online consumers” and suggesting that the new restrictions will  “reduce French people’s spending power.” The BBC’s Christian Fraser suggested that the amended bill could be seen as “payback” for Amazon’s European tax practices—because the company reports nearly all of its sales through a Luxembourg holding office, it pays very little in tax in most European countries. Amazon appeared to recognize as much: in the same statement it defended the legality of its practices.
Over the past several years, France has gone after a number of U.S.-based internet and tech companies—over the past week, the French government has also lashed out at Apple and Google. While the amended Lang Law marks the end of a months-long campaign to protect booksellers from Amazon, it could also be the first shot in a larger fight over tax collection.



Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.