- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

PARIS

Halfway through the performance of “La Traviata” during the Aix-en-Provence music festival last weekend, conductor Pierre Boulez thought the orchestra’s percussion section had gone crazy. Then he realized that “someone outside was banging kitchen utensils,” as he said later.

That “someone” was a group of demonstrating “intermittants du spectacle,” or part-timers in the performing arts — a wide range of actors plus some categories of stage technicians. They were striking to protest proposed changes in their very favorable unemployment benefits.

Mr. Boulez went on to finish the opera despite the background sounds of rhythmic banging, whistling, and chanting.

But as members of the audience left the open-air theater after the performance, they were booed and even jostled by the strikers. The following day, the director of the Aix-en-Provence festival — one of France’s most prestigious summer musical events — declared it closed.

“The moment you need police protection for a festival, there’s no point in going on,” Stephane Lissner said following his announcement.

Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France, was the latest of the summer festivals to be forced to halt its season by the striking part-timers. Their widespread, extremely forceful action has now virtually silenced summer music and summer theater in France — resulting in huge financial losses.

What happened in Aix-en-Provence had been repeated at a dozen well-known festivals. The famous cultural month in Avignon, also in the south, never got off the ground at all, and the festival organizers have begun refunding 75,000 performance tickets, an estimated $9.5 million, mainly to foreign tourists.

In Montpelier, in the southwest, one festival was closed down and another did not start. The communist-led campaign also successfully targeted festivals in Rennes, La Rochelle, Arles, and other centers. President Jacques Chirac called it “a shocking cultural, human, and economic setback.”

The concerted action was a serious blow to the French tourist industry, already hit by the effects of world economic problems on the one hand and France’s unpopularity in the United States — its No. 1 market — following the Iraq war, on the other hand.

But that may not be the worst of it: French officials see it in the context of last spring’s massive strikes by teachers and public sector workers opposed to the government’s program of reform and modernization. The officials worry that the summer campaign may provide the momentum for more strikes to come in September, after the summer vacation period.

Mr. Chirac’s comments on Tuesday set the stage for compromise negotiations with the intermittants before more harm is done to French culture. But last week the government found itself in the very French situation of backing the employers’ rejection of the strikers’ claims of “singularity” because they worked in the cultural field, while at the same time successfully arguing in the European Union that cultural issues should be excluded from the proposed new majority vote system in EU councils — because national cultures (i.e. French) needed to be protected.

A recent hardy perennial in what many see as the French obsession with defending their culture is the practice of several French embassies, including — at least this year — the one in Washington, of sending invitations to the annual Bastille Day (July 14) reception printed in French only to non-French people. The French, of course, would argue that it’s not quite the same as receiving an invitation in Chinese, but it is to some people.

Critics have dramatically denounced the strikes as the assassination of French culture by a group of “spear carriers” — a reference to extras in many operas. To others, though, the action of France’s 100,000 part-timers in the performing arts seems more like suicide than murder.

Under their privileged system, they have to justify 507 hours worked in the past year to be eligible for full unemployment compensation over a 12-month period. Workers in other sectors have to work more than 600 hours to qualify.

Last month, employers in the culture field proposed a change in which the hours worked to claim benefits would have to be completed in 10 months instead of 12. According to published figures, the new requirements would reduce the number of eligible part-timers by about a third — with a corresponding cut in the insurance system’s $950 million annual deficit.

Three of the unions involved agreed to the change, but the communist-led General Labor Confederation (CGT) opposed the agreement and immediately mobilized the protesters.

The employers’ association and the unions agree on two points: First, that the system is widely abused both by the employers who pay low wages to newcomers in return for letting them work the requisite number of qualifying hours, and by actors and technicians who continue to collect unemployment while also working.

Secondly, that the system provides French actors and others with better protection than anywhere else in Europe or the United States. In a commentary in the Paris Herald Tribune this week, John Vinocur said the system “stabilizes a deep pool of professional talent,” and supports people whose big line might otherwise be, “Hi, my name is Fleur, and our specials tonight are …”

In other words, people who would otherwise have to do what out-of-work actors have to do everywhere else in the world.

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