Disgruntled performers threaten French summer festivals

Tue Jun 10, 2014 7:40am EDT
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PARIS (Reuters) - Performers, technicians and other casual workers in the French arts world are threatening to step up strikes to thwart the country's top summer festivals in protest at cuts to their unemployment insurance arrangements.

The threat came as President Francois Hollande's government faced other unrest, with train unions due on Tuesday to launch a 24-hour strike to protest a reorganization of the rail system. Taxi drivers will on Wednesday join a one-day demonstration in major European capitals over competition from chauffeured cabs.

France's summer festivals draw hundreds of thousands of visitors and include renowned events such as the Avignon Theatre Festival and Aix-en-Provence's opera festival - both of which were canceled in 2003 during an earlier bout of strike action.

Hollande wants to narrow the multi-billion-euro deficit in France's Unedic unemployment fund as part of wider moves to get France's public finances back into shape as agreed with European Union partners.

But festival workers - known as "intermittents" - have long refused any change to arrangements they argue are vital to supporting French culture, and say reforms agreed in March will make it impossible for many of them to eke out a living.

Earlier this month they launched strikes in the southern city of Montpellier that have already caused cancellations of events in its "Springtime of Actors" Festival, and the CGT union is calling for a nationwide strike on June 16.

"Montpellier on strike today, all of us on strike tomorrow," read a banner outside Paris Opera Bastille this weekend, where protesters delayed the start of the Verdi opera "La Traviata."

Prime Minister Manuel Valls nominated a mediator to try to defuse the crisis. The mediator's proposals will be submitted to the labor and culture ministries in two weeks.

France's some 100,000 casual festival workers have a special status under law. Although they only represent 3.5 percent of job-seekers, their unemployment compensation is two times higher than the average and in itself creates a deficit which amounts to a quarter of Unedic's annual shortfall of four billion euros.   Continued...