French theater festival threatened by strike

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

PARIS -- French performers on Monday agreed to a strike that could bring an abrupt halt the artistic sensation of the summer, an internationally renowned theater festival in Avignon.

The majority of 640 performers in Avignon voted to stay away from the start of the festival in the cobblestone-paved Provence town today.

The decision rebuffed a last-ditch government effort to avoid the standoff by offering concessions to artists and technicians protesting a plan to cut back on their unemployment benefits.

With the vote, the performers closed ranks with the communist-backed CGT union, which had said the government's offer wasn't good enough and vowed a general strike to begin today.

The performers are worried about changes to a unique French system that protects them with an unemployment plan covering their downtime between projects.

It was still unclear if the Avignon festival would go on, but the vote clearly dimmed its prospects. Organizers were not expected to announce a decision before Wednesday.

The performers also left open the possibility of returning to the three-week festival if conditions changed.

Actors, dancers, filmmakers and technicians have been holding strikes for the past several weeks -- forcing the cancelation of dozens of events throughout France during the summer festival season.

In some cases, artists didn't call off shows but merely disrupted them, blasting fog horns or bursting onstage to explain their demands. Some festival organizers have waited day by day to see if performers would eventually return to the stage.

The government has been trying to resolve the conflict before the start of the Avignon Festival, which gathers troupes and theater-lovers from around the world.

Among the highlights is a show of performing horses in the courtyard of a Medieval papal palace. There's also "Romeo and Juliet" in Lithuanian and "As You Like It" in Italian, not to mention hundreds of unofficial shows and street performances.

If the festival is called off, organizers will lose $2.8 million in ticket sales alone.

Bernard Faivre d'Arcier, who runs the festival, has threatened to cancel it at the first sign of trouble.

"There's no question of making spectators or artists live through an impossible or intolerable situation: delays, last-minute cancelations, interruptions of shows," he told Le Monde newspaper this weekend.

In 2002, the fund for arts workers was at a shortfall of $950 million. Though the government has been in on negotiations, the money-losing system is controlled by the Medef, a powerful business federation that wants to crack down on the deficit.

Personnel working in the performing arts currently have to work 507 hours in a year to qualify for 12 months of unemployment pay. Under the new proposal, they would have to work 507 hours over 10.5 months to win benefits for eight months.

Some unions have approved the plan, while others say it punishes the artists who need the most support.

On Monday, Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon said the reform was being dropped until Jan. 1. He also offered a concession to one of key union demands: to crack down on companies that exploit the system. Some television production companies are notorious for asking people to work full-time while paying them for part-time work so they can claim benefits.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: