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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 296-299

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Avignon Theatre Festival Strike. Avignon, France. 8-10 July 2003.

The fifty-seventh Avignon Festival was killed off by a combination of employer greed, union brinksmanship, procedural bad faith, and governmental bad timing. Ariane Mnouchkine's latest production with the Théâtre du Soleil, The Last Caravanseral (Odyssey), did not play, nor did any of the other thirty-five productions invited from France, Poland, Italy, and Belgium. Months of rehearsal and preparation were lost; France's summer theatrical showplace did not happen for the first time in its history. The Aix-en-Provence Lyric Art Festival was another victim.

Since 1968, French performing artists have benefited from a special category of unemployment compensation. As "intermittent show workers," they have been able to collect forty percent of their normal salaries while unemployed, searching for gigs, or simply rehearsing. The system worked as an indirect subsidy for the entire performing arts community. When the Théâtre du Soleil closed a show, the company would go in together the next day and file for unemployment compensation—which they would receive for a year or until their next show opened, whichever came first.

Like many good things, the system was prone to abuse: the number of intermittent show workers [End Page 296] has doubled in the last ten years, reaching 96,500 in 2001. Big institutional employers, including public and private television and radio producers, learned to use the category to avoid payroll taxes. Barmen, waiters, receptionists all became "intermittent show workers": they would get just enough hours (507 over twelve months) to qualify for unemployment and were then cut loose. Some of the intermittents themselves became adept at using the system, buying "hours of employment" from small producers for cash in order to reach the 507 hour threshold of eligibility. The deficit in the system grew to $950 million last year. At that rate, every French wage earner was paying an average of sixty dollars a year to support unemployed show people.

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Figure 1
"Oui ou Oui": Strikers in Avignon, summer 2003. Photo: courtesy Robert Schneider.

In late June the employers' syndicate, acting in concert with the government, tried to rein in the deficit by reducing the time limit for amassing the qualifying 507 hours from twelve months to ten. They also reduced the period for pay-outs by the same amount. The changes were approved by three trade unions but rejected by two others, including the left-leaning Confédération Général de Travail (CGT). While exact figures are not available, the evidence is that very few of the workers concerned are affiliated with the three consenting unions. The CGT announced that rule changes would force thirty to thirty-five percent of the intermittents out of the sector entirely. The employers' syndicate said twenty-five percent—either way the shakeout would affect a vast number of actors, designers, musicians and technicians. The government trumpeted the so-called agreement as the only way to save any part of the intermittants' special unemployment regime. The dissenting unions called a strike. Younger theatre people, those most dependant on unemployment, picketed and demonstrated. About 6,000 of them paraded up Avignon's main street behind a black banner reading "It Kills Us to Do This" (La Mort dans l'âme). One self-dramatizing intermittent had himself carried to the steps of the Papal Palace tied to a large, white cross and flagellated by men in black representing the employers' syndicate. Other banners proclaimed that culture itself was being killed or being transformed into a consumer product subject to the market economy like any other product. Demonstrators bound and gagged each other and lay down to block traffic. Several days later, dressed in black, sixty of them would pelt the walls of the palace with locally-grown plums. Make no mistake—these were theatre people demonstrating.

Taking the other side at a noisy meeting, Ariane Mnouchkine declared that show people should be striking for the chance to work, not to be indemnified for not working. Patrice...


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