Not just another French strike


Susan Brodie - Toi Toi Toi

By Susan Brodie: Toi Toi Toi!

Last Wednesday the Paris Opera cancelled performances in solidarity with France’s intermittents du spectacle, the freelance musicians, actors, and backstage artists and craftsmen who provide French show business with the bulk of their personnel. Proposals from MEDEF, a powerful association of private enterprises, would eliminate the special regime of unemployment benefits to the freelance artists and craftsmen who put on shows in France. 3000 musicians and other performers marched from the Palais Royal to MEDEF headquarters on Wednesday, while similar demonstrations took place in other French cities.

Strike at Paris Opera in support of freelancers
Strike at Paris Opera in support of freelancers

The system of unemployment benefits for freelance entertainment workers was established in 1936, initially for the film industry. Since then les intermittents have enjoyed a security only dreamed of by American freelancers in the performing arts. A musician who works 507 hours in 10 1/2 months (by my calculations roughly 42 performances, more for runs longer than 5 days) is eligible to receive 8 months of unemployment compensation. In contrast, the the typical French salaried employee earns one day of unemployment compensation for each day worked. The intermittent, for his part, draws double that amount:after a four-month run of a musical, a chorus dancer could theoretically take the rest of the year off–an unlikely scenario, however, for any performer who wants to maintain a career. Here in French is a simple summary of the issues. (I’m ignoring, at least for now, the vast number of tech jobs subject to the same rules)

MEDEF argues that unemployment benefits should be the same for all workers, blaming 1€ billion of the Social Security deficit on these special benefits. Performers, of course, have different employment conditions than people who work in full-time salaried jobs. Intermittents aren’t paid for time spent learning their parts, practicing their instrument, soliciting work, travel time, and keeping the books. Except for members of national companies, like the Opera de Paris and the Comédie Française, whose employees are civil servants, and the salaried employees of private presenters like Disney, musicians and other show business people are dependent on irregular production schedules as well as on the state of the economy. When people have money to buy tickets and government coffers are flush enough for subsidies, the show goes on. In economic hard times like the present–French unemployment is over 11%–subsidies shrink, people buy fewer tickets, and theaters go dark.

In France, to call oneself an artist does not automatically trigger the question, “And what do you REALLY do?” Government support is one manifestation of the arts’ respectability, but despite the contribution of the performing arts to the economy at large, intermittent benefits have long been a thorn in the side of fiscal conservatives. Quite naturally, performers have fought tenaciously to maintain their benefits. When the issue was renegotiated in 2003, strikes cancelled the prestigious Avignon Festival for the first time in its history. The recent Paris Opera cancellation are surely just the beginning. 

I’ll be following developments with uneasy interest as negotiations continue over the next month.


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