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Flash News, 7-1: Long Hot Summer
Artists' Union Forces Cancellation of Montpellier, Marseille festivals; Aix & Avignon Threatened

"One of the best images that marks France -- the vivacity of her culture, her creations, her diversity -- is gravely menaced."

-- Le Monde, editorial, July 1

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Rejecting a deal signed by three smaller unions Friday that would grant freelance performing artists and technicians eight months of unemployment compensation for working 507 hours the previous 10 (technicians) or 10 and a half (artists) months, the largest union representing freelance performing artists and technicians or Intermittents de Spectacle has forced the cancellation of summer festivals in Montpellier and Marseille, of the opening performances of the festival in Aix-en-Provence, and threatens to cancel the country's largest summer arts festival in Avignon. The final night of Pina Bausch's current run at the Theatre de la ville - Sarah Bernhardt in Paris was also cancelled, after an angry CGT warned of a "long hot summer" in France.

Under the present regime, the intermittents have 12 months in which to complete 507 hours of work, for which they are granted 12 months of unemployment.

In Montpellier, a festival spokeswoman insisted the decision to annul the festival, announced Sunday, was "a common decision with artists, technicians, the Montpellier dance team and the city of Montpellier in support of the (intermittents) movement." But in reality, festival director Jean-Paul Montanari had little choice. "There's no other solution," Montanari told Le Monde in comments published today, after "all the shows have been cancelled, one after the other, at the last moment." Except for last Thursday's festival opening, all performances have been cancelled in the face of strike threats by intermittents. In many theaters and festivals in France, intermittents -- in effect, freelancers hired under contract -- make up a large portion not just of the performers, but the technical team.

Meanwhile, Avignon director Bernard Faivre d'Arcier, who has delayed the opening of the festival there, told Le Parisien he would have no choice but to cancel as well if faced with strikes every night.

The intermittents crisis comes at a time when much of the public sector in France is regularly on strike, to protest government plans to increase the number of years employees have to work before their pensions kick in.

Mathilde Monnier, who directs the Centre Choregraphique in Montpellier and who has circulated a petition backing the intermittents, told Le Monde, "We are all in the same boat. This strike happens in the context of a political culture already very degraded."

The intermittents regime was adapted following the student rebellion of 1968, as a way to aid artistic creation and to recognize the precariousness of the artists who make the work, as Le Monde notes in an editorial in today's editions.

In the last ten years, the numbers of those in the system has doubled, from 50,000 to 100,000, prompting charges of fraud in some quarters. Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, director of the employer group Medef, denounced on Radio France "people who live from their (unemployment) insurance in lieu of living from their work." (According to Le Monde, the unemployment insurance system faced a deficit of more than $900 million in 2002.)

But the intermittents counter that they have a right to make their livings from their metier -- as opposed to, say, having to work as waiters or waitresses to support their artistic careers, as is often the situation in the United States and other countries.

Opponents claim the regime signed Friday threatens to remove 30 percent of the intermittents from the system. They also say the decrease in benefits could deter young artists from entering the performing arts professions.

Meanwhile, Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon, after meeting with the directors of the Aix, Avignon, and Marseille festivals, promised to take another look at the accords signed Friday. But he also suggested, in comments on France 2 last night reported in today's Liberation, that the intermittents need to actually read the agreement. Aillagon promised an announcement next week of a plan to support smaller companies.

The new accord also allows intermittents to take complimentary work -- such as teaching -- while still having their compensation kick in, and increases the daily minimum compensation from 24.24 Euros to 25.90.

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