After 320 years, Paris theatre's stage hands demand égalité

A pay deal signed during the reign of Louis XIV has led to indefinite strike at famed Comédie Française

The most prestigious theatre company in France, the Comédie Française, has been thrown into confusion over a 332-year-old pay agreement.

The classical theatre company has cancelled its published programme after backstage staff called an indefinite strike against a pay and bonus system which has been unchanged since 1680.

The theatre, close to the Louvre in the heart of Paris, has been the official home of French classical drama, both tragic and comic, since the 17th century. The pay dispute can only be described as tragicomic: a category unrecognised by the rigid rules of French classical theatre.

Three unions representing technicians are demanding changes in a system of annual bonuses which goes back to the theatre's origins in the era of Racine and Molière. More than three-quarters of the company's annual profits – 76.5 per cent – are distributed in "twelfths", or bonuses, to 37 sociétaires – leading actors with permanent status. The remainder is divided between the 320 technicians and administrators and 21 junior actors, or pensionnaires. Unions complain that technicians can no longer survive on their monthly salaries and small share of the bonus pot. A junior stage hand earns only €20,000 (£16,500) a year.

The system may have been reasonable in the 17th century, the unions say, but TV and cinema now provide other sources of cash for leading actors. "We are operating under a system which is several centuries old," a union statement said. "It may once have been justified to allow a permanent troupe of actors to live from their profession. Times have changed."

The theatre's management accepts that the unions have a point. Negotiations will resume, it says, if the strike is abandoned. The unions insist that the strike will continue until the management caves in.

The timing, whether tragic or comic, could not be worse. The 300-year-old main auditorium of the Comédie Française, the Salle Richelieu, has been closed for 12 months for renovations. An elaborate circus tent has been erected in the courtyard of the adjoining Palais Royal to bring in income while the work is in progress.

Both unions and management agree that it is not simply a case of leading actors being greedy. The 37 sociétaires who take the lion's share of the bonus pot include some of the most talented actors in France. They give more than 100 performances a year for total rewards far below what they could earn in the cinema or commercial theatre.

One of the best known Comédie Française actors, Denis Podalydès, who played President Nicolas Sarkozy brilliantly in a film last year, points out that the classical company would be lost without the audience-attracting talent of its principal performers. "People are giving the misleading impression that we are aristocrats still living in the (pre-Revolution) ancien régime," he said. "The truth is very different."

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