Enter Chirac, stage right, in attempt to save arts festivals

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The Independent Online

Jacques Chirac tried to save the remnants of France's summer arts season yesterday by promising a new system of subsidies for performers and technicians by next year.

The President's announcement, during his traditional television interview to mark France's national day, may prove to be too little and too late to resolve an increasingly ill-tempered strike by workers in the arts over special unemployment pay.

It certainly came too late to save the three most prestigious arts festivals of the summer, in Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and La Rochelle, which were cancelled last week. M. Chirac had refused to comment on the dispute until yesterday, despite pleas for his intervention from festival organisers.

What was not immediately clear was whether M. Chirac's proposal offered a significant advance on new subsidies for "artistic creation" already promised by Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the Culture Minister.

In his interview, the President also pledged to continue his programme of tax cuts, even though France's budget deficit is now over 3.5 per cent of GDP, beyond the ceiling imposed on the countries in euroland.

After three months of social unrest over pensions rights, the structure of government and arts subsidies, M. Chirac was asked whether he thought that France was "unreformable". He said that France had always been a country that preferred confrontation to dialogue. At times, that had been its strength but it was "also its weakness", he said.

President Chirac has been criticised for making no direct interventions in any of these disputes, allowing his Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin to take all the punishment.

His refusal to respond to the strike by arts workers has caused deep anger among festival organisers.

Self-employed workers in the arts, ranging from actors to television technicians to children's entertainers, have been on strike for a fortnight to protest against changes in their special unemployment rights. Since 1969, casual theatrical workers have been given rights to alternate at will between work and the dole, so long as they work in the arts for 507 hours in any 12-month period.

The system, supposedly self-financing, is costing the independent agency that manages unemployment pay more than €400m (£280m) a year.

President Chirac said yesterday that the system amounted to a subsidy for the arts, which was justified in itself but should not be paid entirely out of the unemployment fund. He said he had called on the government to set up a subsidy system for the arts workers by the beginning of next year. He also said that he had ordered an investigation into "clear abuses" of the present system by television and film companies.