Avignon shows hit as France questions performers' pay

Performers at Avignon Festival
Image caption The Avignon Festival in the south of France is a big international showcase for theatre

The "intermittents" are back!

If you do not understand what that means, then you cannot have spent much time in France.

The "intermittents" - or more precisely "les intermittents du spectacle" - are a peculiarly Gallic species.

They are workers in the arts - actors, musicians, technicians and so on - who enjoy a special and very generous system of unemployment benefit.

Every now and again they burst on the scene in a campaign of noisy protests to defend their special status.

To be flippant, one might say that on the labour front they are intermittently spectacular.

And one of those moments happens to be right now. The scene: the Avignon Theatre Festival. The cause: yet another government attempt to tamper with their cherished system.

'Waste of money'

Throughout the three weeks of the festival there have been almost daily demonstrations.

Several shows have been stopped or disrupted, though the worst nightmare of the organisers - total cancellation of the entire event, as happened in 2003 - has happily been avoided.

Members of the Socialist government have been warned not to attend any performance, and Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti was heckled when she came.

Everywhere festival folk are wearing red, square ribbons, indicating support for the cause. Banners hang from public buildings.

Opponents of the "intermittent" status say it is an outrageous waste of money, which does little to support a culture of quality.

A recent study by the Cour des Comptes - France's financial watchdog - put the annual cost at 1bn euros (£793m; $1.3bn).

Moreover it said that even though only 100,000 people actually draw the benefits, they account for a third of the annual deficit of the entire French unemployment regime.

Image caption The banner says the money paid to "intermittents" brings huge economic benefits

These figures are hotly disputed. What is undeniable is that French arts workers - by virtue of the on-off nature of their contracts - have by far the most favourable labour arrangements in the world.

As long as they can prove that they have worked for a little more than 500 hours inside 10 months - so 50 hours a month, 12 hours a week - then "intermittents" qualify for nine months' unemployment benefit. And that benefit is itself higher than for other workers.

The system was devised in the 1930s to facilitate short-term contracts in the film trade.

As recently as the 1980s there were only a few thousand people who qualified. But the number has exploded in recent years, and as a result so have the costs.

'Working all the time'

Actors and musicians bristle when you suggest their privileges are undeserved.

"When you see a play or a concert, you only see the two or three hours of the performance; and the performer only gets paid for those two hours," says Nathaniel Briegel, a musician who is on the intermittents' organising committee.

"What you don't see are all the hours that have gone into producing that performance. On paper we may only work 500 hours in 10 months or whatever; in practice we are working all the time.

"We have special arrangements because of the special nature of our work. It is a way of making sure there is a supply of workers in the field of the arts."

Image caption Some performances were cancelled because of protests by the "intermittents"

In the Socialist government there is general approval of the intermittent system. Certainly the rhetoric is all about their irreplaceable contribution to French culture.

However there is also a recognition - especially in today's grim economic context - that the regime costs too much. Hence the calls for (actually pretty timid) reform - calls which are regarded as a betrayal by the intermittents.

"President Hollande came to power saying he wanted to defend culture. But it is more and more of the same liberal economics. No wonder we are angry," said actor Loic Auffray, who is appearing in a play in the Avignon fringe.

Abolition call

But if the government wants merely to adjust the system, others are calling for wholesale abolition.

"This system is a classic example of the French 'exception'. It is the French touch which turns out to be the French mess!" says Jean-Philippe Delsol, of the free-market French Institute for Economic and Fiscal Research.

"It is quite unbelievable that people can expect special treatment - basically to live off the backs of others - simply because they are artists. Or claim to be artists.

"In any other field, if you don't have enough work you go out and find something else to supplement your wages. You work in a bar, or you serve petrol at a garage. If you are passionate about your art, you do it when you can. But first you earn your living."

Value for money?

But there is another and much deeper layer of criticism of the intermittent system. This is not so much about its affordability, as about whether it actually promotes culture of any value.

The regime forms part of a much vaster web of subsidy and protection for French culture. Combined with grants from central and regional government, it helps sustain not just theatre, but also art galleries and the film and music industries, as well as a lot of TV production.

Supporters say France is the envy of other European countries, which do not have anything like the same range of cultural life.

Image caption Plenty of voices in France defend the state's generous funding for the arts

But critics worry about the enfeebling effects of too much protection. Culture worth anything should stand by itself, they say - too much of the French arts scene is simply bad.

"I often make the point about French electronic music," says philosopher Yves Michaud, who writes on French culture.

"It is the one part of the culture scene here which is actually vibrant, world-class, and commercially successful. And yet it exists without a drop of subsidy.

"By contrast the sectors which receive state help are undynamic, overprotected and proliferate with productions of very poor quality. In general we have a culture policy dating from the Socialist governments of the early 1980s which has totally failed."

But for Olivier Py, director of the Avignon festival, subsidies and special arrangements like the intermittent system are what make French culture great.

The argument that Britain, for example, also has a thriving arts scene - arguably much more thriving - but without the same level of state help, cuts little ice.

"Commercial art may do well in such a world, but not what I would call artistic art," he says.

"Our system is unique and we are very proud of it. Without the intermittent regime, actors and technicians would have to go out to work at McDonald's just to survive.

"So we have to fight to keep it."

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