Last stand by stage-hands strips Paris Opra of its glamour

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The Independent Online

The wave of French strikes ended 10 days ago but just like in the Asterix stories one small community of indomitable Gauls still holds out against President Nicolas Sarkozy. Unfortunately for opera and ballet lovers, the die-hards are a few militant stage-hands at the Paris Opra.

Seventeen performances have been cancelled during the peak pre-Christmas season and 47,000 theatre-goers, including thousands of children, have been turned away in the past six weeks. Most of the Opra's 1,680 employees have agreed an outline deal for a new early retirement scheme, more generous than the terms offered to transport workers who suspended their strikes two weekends ago.

A small number of stage-hands at the Paris Opra, mostly belonging to the Trotskyist-aligned trades union federation, SUD, are refusing to return to work. Many performances of the ballet, The Nutcracker, and the opera, La Traviata, have been given in "rehearsal" or "concert" form, without scenery or costumes.

A new production of Wagner's Tannhauser, due to open tomorrow, may also have to be given in concert form. The Opra's director, Grard Mortier, said he could lose €8m (5.7m) if the strikes continue until the new year.

Employees at the two Paris Opra houses, the Palais Garnier and the Bastille, are among 500,000 state workers who have rights to retire early with full pensions. Under the present scheme, dancers retire at 40 and technicians at 55. President Sarkozy is trying to bring the early retirement schemes closer in line with the pension regime of other state sector workers.

An outline deal would force Opra employees to work an extra 18 months to claim full pensions. Anyone who worked longer would earn a higher pension.