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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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