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Flash News & Analysis, 4-19: Taking it to the Streets
Freelance Artists Take Center Stage

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Weeks after a sweeping nationwide political victory by the Left facilitated by the street actions and strikes of their 100,000-strong movement, France's Intermittents du Spectacle (or freelance artists and technicians) take center stage again today, in the halls of power and in streets dampened by more than intermittent April showers in the capital and the provinces.

The Intermittents have been agitating since the announcement last year of plans by their unemployment insurance syndicate to slash their benefits from one year to eight months, and reduce the window in which they need to clock the 507 hours necessary to qualify for the unemployment from a year to 10 (technicians) or 10-and-a-half (artists) months. The new regime, pushed by the employers association, agreed to by minority employee unions, and approved by the right-wing government, was signed late last year and became law in January.

The Intermittents and their supporters -- including a preponderance of theater and festival directors -- struck back last summer, forcing the cancellation of most of the country's major festivals with strikes or the threat of strikes, including those of Paris, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Montpellier.

The Intermittents' enduring street actions, as Antoine Guiral points out in today's editions of the Paris daily Liberation, reinforced the image of the government -- which has sought to cut benefits in other areas -- as anti-social or anti-employee. Last month, in a re-sounding rejection of those policies, French voters turned out en masse -- including increasing numbers of young people -- to elect Socialist-Green presidents in 20 of the country's 21 regions. Although French president Jacques Chirac largely ignored this rejection in retaining most ministers of the current government, a rare exception was the demissioning of culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon. His handling of the Intermittents crisis -- essentially, he refused to handle it -- incurred the wrath not just of the artists and theater directors, but of elected officials on the Left and Right, upset by the economic impact of the festival cancellations. In addition, the government came under fire for not appreciating that the new regime failed to guarantee maternity leave, thus cutting pregnant artists out of the system or making them work well into their ninth months to keep their eligibility.

Thus, it's no surprise that the government has made solving the crisis the top priority of new culture minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, who revisits the new protocal in a meeting this afternoon with the National Council of Spectacle Professionals, created by former culture minister Jack Lang in 1993 and made up of employees, employers, and representatives of cultural institutions. But notwithstanding his mandate and his name (the literal translation of "Donnedieu" is "Givegod"), "RDV," as he's called here, warns, "I'm not a magician." He has not been given any more financial resources with which to remedy the situation. The crisis was prompted by what employers claim (and the main union disputes) was an 800 million Euro (or $9.6 million) deficit in the 2002 budget for Intermittents' unemployment insurance; the government currently devotes 1 percent of the national budget to culture, and there are no plans to augment that with money to cover the Intermittents system deficit. "I can't perform miracles," RDV told Liberation ahead of this afternoon's meeting at the ministry's offices on the rue de Valois here.

Also today, the CGT, the major French union which represents the majority of Intermittents and which opposed the new protocol, has called for a demonstration in Paris from the office of the employers' association to the bureaus of the Culture Ministry, and similar demonstrations will take place throughout the country. Should the government fail to revisit the changed benefits regime, it's uncertain whether the Intermittents have the support for a second summer of discontent and shuttered festivals. Considering that last year's cancellations didn't prevent the new regime from being signed into law, Avignon's new co-director, Vincent Baudriller, points out today in Liberation, the movement must "think of other methods of action. The response must be artistic. If this crisis has a plus, it's to again place politics at the heart of creation." Among other things, Baudriller envisions that this summer's shows will be accompanied by discussions and meetings on cultural issues. But festival cancellation is out of the question. "If a social tempest again prevents the festival, it will be the end of Avignon." If the 1.9 million Euro (or $2.3 million) cost of last year's annulation was covered by the government, Baudriller says, there would be no such rescue for a repeat non-performance. More existentially, "It's absurd to work all year for something which then doesn't take place."

For the Intermittents, if the surface priority the "new" government is giving to this cultural crisis does not bring tangible results -- such as restoring the benefits of pregnant artists and of others cut out by the stricter requirements -- the existential question may well be: Does one protect one's right to earn a living by one's metier by refusing to work in that metier?

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