- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

CANNES, France - Organizers of the Cannes Film Festival yesterday held last-ditch talks with French entertainment workers in a bid to head off protests that could disrupt the world’s top cinema showcase.

With the threat of demonstrations hanging over today’s glittering opening — amid a plethora of A-list celebrity guests, including this year’s festival judge, Quentin Tarantino, and Spanish director Pedro Almodovar — the government has become increasingly anxious.

Festival organizers fear protesters might overwhelm the 1,000 police deployed to ensure security in the French Riviera resort and disrupt red-carpet events such as the nightly film screenings that attract some of the world’s most recognizable faces.

Representatives on both sides sat down yesterday to discuss ways workers could express their outrage over government cuts to unemployment benefits without pulling down the curtain on the 12-day festival.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who last week accused France’s 100,000 part-time entertainment industry workers of practicing “blackmail democracy,” changed his tone last weekend to suggest negotiations could be held.

His culture minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, already has offered 20 million euros (or $24 million) to help workers hit by the benefits reform that came into effect this year.

However, the arts workers appear determined to generate publicity for the campaign, possibly in the same vein as last year, when protests forced the cancellation of most of France’s summer arts festival season.

Yesterday, hundreds of the workers were headed to Cannes on buses to carry out action decided on behind closed doors in recent days. A coordination committee has vowed to “occupy” the festival but has not specified how.

Shopkeepers, restaurateurs and hoteliers, fearful of losing the trade the 210,000 people who flock to the Mediterranean town for the festival bring, were to hold their own counterdemonstration to urge the workers to keep the peace.

The opening ceremony late today is a particularly sensitive moment, given the intense media coverage it attracts from the nearly 5,000 journalists from around the world accredited to cover the event. Tomorrow also will be a big day, with the worldwide premiere of the movie “Troy” to be accompanied by appearances from its star, Brad Pitt.

Other celebrities expected to put in appearances during the festival include Charlize Theron, Maggie Cheung, Cameron Diaz, Gong Li, Penelope Cruz, Uma Thurman, Tom Hanks, Sharon Stone and Sean Penn.

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