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Flash News, 7-10: Quelle Dommage!
Avignon, Aix Festivals Canceled by Artist Strike

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- In a poignantly premature ending to his final summer as director, Bernard Faivre d'Arcier announced this afternoon that the Festival d'Avignon has been cancelled, following three straight nights of strikes by freelance performance artists and technicians. Scheduled to run July 8 to 28, the festival, the largest theater and dance festival in the world, thus closes without a curtain being raised. In Aix-en-Provence, meanwhile, the festival was cancelled despite a promise by union organizers to suspend strikes for three days.

Rosas, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Angelin Preljocaj, Bartabas and Francois Verret are among the dance companies affected by the annulment of Avignon. Rosas earlier saw its engagement at the Montpellier Dance Festival evaporate with that festival's cancellation in the face of a strike threat by the CGT, the largest union representing the freelancers or Intermittents du Spectacle, and which has rejected an accord signed last month by smaller unions with employers and the government which would reduce the Intermittents unemployment compensation and toughen requirements to qualify for unemployment.

In Avignon, the cancellation comes after a tense few days marked (as reported in Le Monde and Metro) by a funeral-style union march, the shuttering of local shops, and a warning by the town's right-wing deputy mayor that town officials would not tolerate three weeks of demonstrations. In Aix, in spurning the union offer to let most performances continue for three days, officials, cited today on Radio France, said they simply could not put their audiences through any more "perturbations," uncertain if they would be met at the theater by a show or a strike.

Across France, festivals continue to wither like fuchsias in summer, raising the question of whether the union, in its effort to draw attention to the Intermittents' situation, has gone too far, "holding the festivals hostage," as Le Figaro blared in its headlines Wednesday.

In Avignon, the strikes had continued despite Faivre d'Arcie's passionate intervening on the artists' side, including a call for the government to abandon the proposed new regime.

That regime would give Intermittent artists ten-and-half months and technicians ten in which to log 507 hours in order to qualify for eight months of unemployment compensation. Under the current regime, they have 12 months to work the hours, in return for which they're granted 12 months of compensation. Under the new regime, Intermittents would be able to teach, write, and take class without jeopardizing their unemployment.

The system, unique to France, essentially accords freelancers -- who work for many employers -- the same rights to indeminification as those who work full-time for one employer.

To the CGT, the new regime does no less than "sack the system of unemployment insurance" for performing artists. Even now, argues the union, 50 percent of performing artists and technicians can't attain the 507 annual hours to qualify. The new regime, it claims, would exclude another third of their ranks from this safety net.

"This disastrous accord will make it more precarious for those who already find it hard to live from their metier," the union argued in a flyer handed out at Tuesday's march down the Grands Boulevards. "We want to live by our metier" has become the slogan du jour of the Intermittents.

In pressing their case with the public, the CGT has insisted, as a sign at the vanguard of Tuesday's Paris march of thousands of Intermittents and their supporters down the Grands Boulevards put it, that "the Intermittents are the spectacle, Medef is the obstacle." (Medef is the employers' association.) The Intermittents have also tried to make the case that it's not just their livelihoods, but the culture of France -- the celebrated "French exception" -- which is at stake; as another banner expressed it, riffing on the popular summer sales now in progress, "Sale! 20%! 30%! 50% off culture -- everything must go!" (Even Tintin has been enlisted to the cause -- one demonstrator held a placard with Herge's intrepid reporter and Mrs. Castafiore, and the words, "Castafiore on strike!")

Organizers have also tried to link the Intermittents' cause with other struggles in France's latest summer of worker discontent, including that against government plans to decentralize education and decrease pensions for state workers, and McDonalds' alleged "enslavement" of its workers. (One Paris McDonalds has been occupied by its workers for the better part of a year, while teachers unhappy with decentralization plans threatened to boycott graduation and not hand out diplomas.)

But unlike these movements, in shutting down the festivals, the Intermittents have picked vulnerable targets and allies, and they are getting frustrated.

Alain Crombecque, director of the Festival d'automne and formerly of the festival in Avignon, notes, in today's Le Monde, that "For ten years, no one has reflected on the changes necessary to the regime of the Intermittents. It's a collective error."

And Jean-Louis Foulquier, whose Francofiles festival in La Rochelle was just cancelled, was more testy, accusing union organizers, in the pages of Metro, of having "rolled in the wheat."

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