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Flash News, 2-26: Strike!
As Looming Changes in Unemployment Rules Threaten France with "Cultural Decertification," Artists and Theaters Stop Work for a Day

"We want to live from our metiers."

-- Badge worn by striking artists last night in Paris

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Freelance performing artists and technicians, nervous about threatened changes to a system which grants them unemployment insurance if they work about 70 days per year and ensures the existence of hundreds of small companies and theaters, convened a 24-hour national strike Tuesday, supported by theaters and film producers across the country who suspended operations on a day that concluded with 30,000 artists and their supporters marching from the Bastille down the Grand Boulevards.

The regime for the "Intermittents du spectacle," installed a year after the student protests of 1968, indemnifies for a year freelance artists and technicians who work a total of 507 hours the previous year. The threshold is higher and the period of insurance shorter for actors, dancers, and musicians performing live, who must work 606 hours for four months of unemployment to kick in. About 96,000 workers currently qualify. Translated to an American landscape, such a system would decrease the need for dancers to work multiple non-dance jobs to support their performing careers; it would also subsidize dancers while they rehearse, look for work, or take classes. In France, where smaller companies are less likely than big ones to receive state funding and where there is little infrastructure for private giving, the elimination of the Intermittents du spectacle regime could decimate the cultural landscape, leaving only the larger companies and the grand-scale spectacles.

The triggers for the current panic include an $800 million deficit in the insurance system, hostility to the system by Medef, the largest employers union, and charges by government inspectors that the current system is open to fraud, including false reporting or trading of hours. Supporters counter that in fact, one must jump through several hurdles to prove the hours are legitimate. Further exacerbating the worry, say leaders of the arts community, has been the failure by the current right-wing government to state a clear position on the issue.

"It's the worst warning we've had for a long time on this matter," said Jean-Marie Horde, general director of the Theatre de la Bastille, a major dance and theater presenter which cancelled last night's final performance of the new creation from Douglas Dunn, Steve Lacy, Charles Atlas and Carol Mullins to honor the strike. Among the more than 100 other theaters who also darkened their houses were the Comedie-Francaise, Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, Opera-Comique, Odeon, and Opera Garnier, one of two homes to the Paris Opera Ballet.

At the Opera Bastille, the ballet company's other home, a large banner dangled from the balcony over demonstrators who packed the front steps, announcing, "Opera Bastille en greve." Greve is the French word for strike.

It's no surprise that theaters should join the strike; many of them depend on Intermittents not just on the stage, but as technicians as well. Of the 200 hired by the Theatre de la Bastille every year, only 12 are permanent employees, including two to three technicians. "It took eight to set our show," said Mullins, who designed the lights for the work.

"Without this regime," explained Horde, "we would have to close."

For the artists and technicians, the end of the Intermittents regime would provoke a practical and existential crisis. At last night's rally, many of the demonstrators sported paper badges proclaiming, "We want to live from our metiers."

For Dominique Lubeigt, an independent choreographer and dancer, the Intermittents law "makes my work possible. Because to do this kind of work, you need time and energy. Finding a job in the normal world doesn't allow you this." Voicing a sentiment familiar to U.S. choreographers who must coordinate studio rental around the multiple non-dance work schedules of their dancers, Lubeigt explained last night in the lobby of the Bastille, "If you need to rent a studio, you can't get the hours you like if you work during the day with fixed periods. I also work on my own, without a producer. I have to sell the work, make the flyers.... I can't pay someone to do this."

While media reports, including Monday's coverage of the issue in the Paris daily Liberation, have speculated that the government might raise the hours of work required before unemployment kicks in, the government itself has not clearly addressed the issue, said Horde. "It's very clear (the government) wants to change" the regime, he said, but, "it's the first time the government doesn't state clearly the issue," which, he said, needs to be addressed from a political, not just an economic stance. "They've been keeping it vague."

Perhaps in part for that reason, support for the Intermittents is not unanimous, among the public or even other, established, artists. As last night's demonstration set off from the Bastille, a cadre of about 300, including members of the agit-prop theater-music company Jolie Mome, broke off to march to and picket Bataclan, a mainstream theater where the show had not been cancelled, at the behest, demonstrators said, of the headliner, singer Michel Jonasz.

Standing near a poster for another show ironically titled "Zazie Squatte," the demonstrators -- all in fine voice -- chanted, "En greve/No spectacle!," "Annule (Cancel) le spectacle!," "En greve -- tout les spectacles!(On strike! All the shows!)," and, as the singer arrived and forced his way through the crush of the demonstrators, "Jonasz, avec nous! (Jonasz, with us!)"

The effort succeeded; shortly after 8 p.m., behind a barricade of several security guards, theater workers placed a hastily scribbled sign in the window, "Tonight's show has been cancelled for reasons of security," lowered the metal gate at the building's facade, and darkened the lobby.

A battle was won, but not necessarily the war. Lingering demonstrators engaged in lively debates with disappointed spectators arriving to discover the performance cancelled. "You can always stay home and watch television," one striker scolded an irritated and poshly attired Jonasz fan.

As in the United States, many in the public here have the mistaken impression that artists are a privileged class, and that the regime of the Intermittents just enables their liberal lifestyle. In order to retain the regime, artists and theaters will have to convince them of the law's vitality not just to the lives of artists, but the cultural life of France. "It would be a big problem" if the regime were eliminated, said Horde, "because our history in France is not of the big theater with permanent employees." The majority of creations, he said, come from "the free groups, who need this."

The consequences to the country's cultural scene could be devastating, warned the Federation des Syndicats CGT du Spectacle, which represents the artists. "In a period marked by successive decreases in the cultural budget," it said in a statement distributed at the demonstration, drastic changes to the Intermittents law risk "dragging our country close to cultural decertification."

By contrast, Horde said, if the regime survives, its impact could extend beyond France. "The regime of the Intermittents should be the model for Europe. Europe...has missed the main thing that connects European countries, which is culture."

Attending the lively discussion of the issue last night at the Bastille, Mullins observed, "All these years I've been envious of the French system. I don't want them to be worse than the U.S."

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