Strike closes opening of 'world's biggest' theatre fest

AVIGNON, Marie-Pierre Ferey- The two opening shows of France's prestigious Avignon Festival -- one of the world's biggest theatre showcases -- were cancelled hours before curtain up on Friday after strike action by actors and technicians.
The festival, which last year attracted 128,000 theatre-goers to the southern French city, has been under threat from a long-running dispute over planned government changes to the status of "intermittents" -- artists and cultural workers who benefit from a more generous unemployment system than other workers.

Festival director Olivier Py told a press conference on Friday that the premieres of "The Prince of Homburg" by Heinrich von Kleist and the ballet "Fatal Blow" would now not go ahead. He put the cost of the cancellations at 29,000 euros ($39,000) and said ticket holders will be offered their money back.
Meanwhile Friday's premiere of Rossini's "The Turk in Italy" at the Aix-en-Provence opera festival was also under threat. The festival had earlier issued an open letter warning reform of the intermittent system was putting its future in jeopardy.
Thierry Lepaon, of the CGT-Spectacle union, blamed the turmoil on the French government, claiming it had to "take the consequences of its decision" to heavily restrict who qualifies for the status, which underpins much of France's heavily-subsidised cultural sector.
He said artists, sound engineers and set designers had to take the action to save "live performing arts in France".
Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti attempted to head off further action closing more festival shows by saying that she "understood the intermittents' worries... and I respect their democratic vote to strike". However, she made no fresh concessions.
A similar dispute in 2003 forced the organisers to cancel a large swathe of the programme.
- Costs 1bn euros a year -
More than 106,000 people benefit from the generous intermittent system, set up 30 years ago by Francois Mitterrand's socialist government to counter chronic job insecurity in the arts and entertainment industries.
It allows certain performance artists, technicians and designers to claim unemployment benefit while they are "resting" as long as they have worked at least three months of the year.
But with 10 times as many people claiming the status as in 1984, and the French television industry in particular accused of exploiting the status to keep thousands of workers on low-wage, short-term contracts, many argue it is ripe for reform. The French national audit office claims it costs taxpayers one billion euros ($1.37 billion)a year, and employers have called for the status to be scrapped altogether.
Unions, however, argue that without the security that the system affords, artists and the French culture scene would suffer. The country's summer festival circuit has become the main battleground of the dispute, with several either hit or threatened by industrial action.
The Avignon Festival is regarded as one of the biggest theatre festivals in the world, a title hotly disputed with the annual Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.

Saturday, July 5th 2014
Marie-Pierre Ferey

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