Occupy… the theater: French strikes protest benefit cuts for out-of-work entertainers

French artists and entertainment workers known in France as "intermittents du spectacle" adress the press from the top of the Odeon theatre by banners reading "fights' convergence" and "Up all night" as they occupy the building in Paris on April 25, 2016. © Philippe Lopez
Protesters have occupied the landmark Odeon Theater in Paris, to defend France’s uniquely generous benefits payments for intermittently employed artists and performers, following proposals of extensive cuts by the government.

“No work without unemployment benefits,” read a banner on top of the theater, a focal point for the legendary 1968 student protests, as actors shouted slogans through megaphones.

© Philippe Lopez

According to the existing system, which was initially adopted 80 years ago, creative workers – from stage technicians to actors – who perform contract work, are paid a significant proportion of their salaries when they are unemployed, which is likely to be for a large part of any year.

To qualify for the scheme, these contract workers – known as ‘intermittents’ – have to perform for over 500 hours in the last ten months. Currently, more than 100,000 people are drawing benefits from the scheme, and despite being part-funded by employers, the scheme is running an annual deficit of €950 million.

Last month, Medef, the national employers’ union, proposed cuts that will see benefits fall by €180 million annually, with a final agreement with performers’ unions, some of which have nominally accepted it, expected to be reached by the end of the week.

However, the protesters, who arrived on Sunday night, believe they are being disproportionately targeted, compared to other sectors of the economy, and plan to continue their occupation until Tuesday, at the earliest. Performances of Phedre, a 17th-century Jean Racine play starring Isabelle Huppert, are expected to go ahead without interruption.

“We are going to use the Odeon to debate, study and analyze the negotiations,” one of the participants told the media. Their latest counter-offer proposes cuts of only about €30 million a year.

Critics say that the intermittents scheme is open to abuse by entertainers, who exaggerate their hours, and allows arts employers to skimp on fair salaries, knowing the difference will be made up in benefits.

Several attempts to tighten up the legacy scheme have been made over the past two decades, but every time reforms have hit firestorms of resistance. This round of negotiations has already resulted in occupations in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Caen and Avignon.