French government Slowly Giving Up On The Arts
We can envy the French for croissants, the French Riviera and the unique status of French cultural workers. But it seems that all good things come to an end. For now pastries and dreamy beaches are safe, though we cannot say the same for those artists’ privileges.
France treats its performing artists, commonly called “intermittents” because they are employed intermittently due to the nature of their profession, much differently than the USA or any other country. Thanks to a 1936 law, stage technicians, musicians, actors and performers, who represent more than 254,000 workers in France today, receive benefits designed to compensate for the precarious nature of their chosen field. Working a minimum of 507 hours over 10 months earns intermittents unemployment benefits for up to eight months. Or rather, it used to.
An agreement signed between the MEDEF (National Confederation of French Employers), the government and three trade unions in March 2014 intends to increase intermittents’ contribution to the unemployment fund by raising taxes on their wages and increasing the waiting period between the end of intermittents’ work contracts and the time they can receive unemployment benefits.
Effective July 1st, these amendments led to huge strikes, causing several summer festivals to be cancelled and deeply affecting the Festival d’Avignon, one of the largest performance art festivals in the world. A total of 12 shows were cancelled with a loss of 300,000 euros ($400,509) in revenues.
This unique employment status for performing artists has helped theater and performance thrive in France and has brought many foreign artists to work in the country. In a recent interview in Le Monde, German theatre director Thomas Ostermeier claimed that France was “socially more advanced” than Germany. “The idea of protecting workers in the performing arts, where they work intermittently, is exceptional. It must be defended,” he says.
Not everyone agrees with Ostermeier, especially not the Cour des Comptes (France’s official auditors) nor the MEDEF. Both condemned the high cost of benefits for intermittents, which they claim to be a quarter of the annual deficit of the Unemployment Insurance, and denounce the many abuses of the benefits program by workers who sometimes claim benefits while working and earning salaries.
These cuts represent a new attack on the social safety net in France and are part of a larger wave of austerity measures affecting the whole of Europe. France’s unique system of government support for the arts is now at risk of disappearing.
According to France’s National Institute of Statistical and Economic Information, the performing arts generate more revenue than the automotive industry does in France; in 2011 they made 8.8 billion euros (about $11.8 billion) against 8.6 billion euros (about $11.5 billion) for the car industry. The argument that the arts are beneficial to the economy is not new, and the positive repercussions it has on other sectors such as the tourism industry has been proven, yet government support for the arts — in France, the UK and in Germany — is constantly shrinking, forcing artistic institutions to seek financial support from private donors and companies. Long a reality in the US, this is a new shift in Europe, and in France in particular.
This past summer, many critiques and dissents have emerged among the members of the French government. Opposition to austerity measures from within the government resulted in its demission on August 25, only 147 days after the new prime minister Manuel Walls had formed it. The following day, French president François Hollande and his prime minister formed a new government. Minister of Culture Aurélie Filipetti, who had voiced her support of the intermittents left the government, together with minister of economy Arnaud Montebourg and Minister of Education Benoît Hamon.
Many fear the amendments to the intermittents benefits send the message that France does not value cultural workers as essential to the welfare of the country. The amendments threaten an important program unique to France, but the real risk is that the country’s cultural workers might turn to other industries. This would weaken both the performing arts and the very economic vitality the government claims its austerity measures preserve.