Artists' strike halts first day of Avignon festival

John Lichfield
Tuesday 08 July 2003 00:00 BST

A strike by actors, musicians and technicians has forced the first day of the prestigious drama festival at Avignon today to be cancelled.

A strike by actors, musicians and technicians has forced the first day of the prestigious drama festival at Avignon today to be cancelled.

Thousands of festival-goers, including many from Britain, were advised last night that they could reclaim money for first-night tickets as the entire festival ­ and much of the rest of France's summer arts programme ­ faced collapse.

Backstage staff and extras voted overwhelmingly last night to strike on the first day of the festival, despite fresh efforts by unions and employers today to solve a dispute over unemployment pay.

The Culture Minister, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, announced yesterday that he was suspending, until the end of this year, changes in the rules ­ unique to France ­ which allow freelance arts performers and back-stage staff to alternate between work and the dole.

Militant unions rejected his offer as inadequate and called for the new rules to be withdrawn completely. Strikes and demonstrations by arts workers over the past week have already forced the cancellation or postponement of a series of small arts festivals and several performances by the Paris and Lyon operas and France's national theatre, the Comédie Française.

It remained unclear last night whether so-called " intermittents du spectacle" ­ temporary cultural workers, ranging from actors to electricians ­ would disrupt the entire Avignon festival, the jewel in the crown of France's summer arts season. More than 120,000 tickets have been sold to theatre-goers from all over Europe for the main festival and 600,000 tickets for "fringe" shows.

Workers in the fringe festival will vote on whether to strike today and a grand meeting of "intermittents" will decide tonight whether to extend the strike indefinitely.

Unions representing most of the 75,000 freelance arts workers in France say the proposed rule change would force many members out of the theatre and festival business and undermine the arts industry. Employers and the government say that the present rules ­ costing the state over £800m a year ­ are an invitation to fraud and unsustainable.

Under present arrangements, a freelance worker can claim the dole for up to 12 months if he or she has worked for 507 hours in the past year. Under the new arrangements, technicians would be required to work 507 hours over 10 months (10.5 months for performers) to claim for benefit for up to eight months.

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