The French art world is on strike - why aren't we?

The fight to defend the artists' wage is raging across France, yet today in the UK we believe the arts should be a market-driven competition. A living wage for performers feels a long way off.

Ben Osborn
24 October 2014

Credit: CIP-IDF.

French artists are on strike. Last Thursday performances in several cities were cancelled to coincide with trade union activity around the country. Earlier this month, Parisian theatres shut down in a day of action that also saw strikes in Besançon and Tours.

This is nothing new. Strikes caused cancellations of many shows in the Avignon arts festival in June. A protesting naked human pyramid confronted the minister of culture Aurélie Filippetti during her visit to the city of Guise. Across the summer, artist-activists disrupted festivals and events.

The ongoing protests are about the state benefits provided for intermittents du spectacle, workers in the arts in France without continuous employment. They are fighting to defend the régime d’intermittence – sometimes called the artists’ wage – a part of France’s cultural landscape for decades. 

The French unemployment rate has stayed over 10% for almost two years. The EU are demanding France address its deficit, and austerity measures are finding support within the country's liberal organisations. The General Confederation of Workers (CGT) say this will lead to a chacun pour soi system of privatisation. 

Taking into account the fragmentary nature of work in the arts, the artists' wage provides an allowance for periods of unemployment between jobs, calculated based on income. It was first introduced in 1936 as a way of supporting technicians in the film industry and expanded in the late sixties to include performers of all kinds. It now covers nearly 110,000 beneficiaries. Those covered must have worked 507 hours over 10 months each year to receive this allowance. 

I’m fascinated by this system. As a trade unionist, composer and writer, my adult life has been split between working for organisations that promote equality, and pursuing an artistic career.

It’s often been difficult to reconcile the two. Working for the University and College Union, it’s my job to make sure the union steps in to take action against unfair treatment or exploitation. As a musician and writer, I regularly encounter the attitude that I "will probably at some point have to be exploited" - as this article states.

Today in the UK, we believe that the arts are necessarily market-driven, a culture in which you have to compete for support, rather than being able to claim it as a right. The work is a product to be sold, the artist becomes part of the product; their rights as a worker seem to disappear. 

In this context, working creatively is either making this product for sale, or an expensive hobby – a kind of conspicuous consumption in of itself.

While the French régime seems to offer a different way of working, it has attracted criticism and even direct opposition. A recent report estimated that the scheme cost €1.26bn per year, a third of the annual deficit of the entire French unemployment system. Some free-market groups are arguing against its continuation altogether. But the figures are disputed, with defenders saying that the cost is €320m.

The CIP-IDF, an organisation of intermittent and precarious workers, claims that the régime is being used as a “scapegoat”. Pointing to the wealth produced by the cultural sector and to the inconsistencies in the calculations of costs, they say that “the term ‘deficit’ is pure ideology.”

“Reforming the scheme would cause major problems,” says Bertrand Lesca – a French theatre director who I often collaborate with. “People are relying on it to live.”

When reforms to the regime were first initiated in 2003, changing the scheme to reflect 10 month periods rather than an annual calculation, they sparked massive protests in the cultural sector. The Avignon festival was shut down completely, hundreds of other festivals were disrupted or cancelled and the Cannes Film Festival was threatened with closure. While changes did take place, the intermittents managed to save the scheme from a major overhaul.

But new reforms have been instituted this year: a lower cap on benefits and a two per cent increase in social security contributions. While these are small changes, it’s feared that they may be the start of more.

In June, when the first stage of these reforms was being instituted, Bertrand was working in London with a French cast, assistant-directing Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu Roi at the Barbican.

He says: “I spoke to the actors. I said, we have to inform people about what’s going on in France, and that we care, and that there is a fight that we will fight. I spoke from my own point of view as a director working in England, explaining what it was like to work here – I don’t want the cultural sector in France to go through the same thing.”


Credit: CIP-IDF.

Electing not to shut down the show, they used it instead as an opportunity to spread information about the protests, projecting text onto the stage as the audience entered. Audiences to Peter Brooke’s production The Valley of Astonishment, being performed at London’s Young Vic at the same time, were being handed leaflets expressing “full support for the intermittents in their difficult struggle.” 

For French performers and technicians, it’s clear that the benefit scheme goes beyond protecting livelihoods.

Cecile Le Terme, an actress in Ubu Roi, explained its significance to me. “It allows one to work and study for oneself between contracts, to develop skills, to put on risky projects without relying on a commercial purpose. It allows research and reflection, the birth of artistic projects.” That’s what she wanted to communicate by projecting this information on the London stage: “the audience needs to understand that the show might not have happened without the artists’ wage.” 

The difference between France and England is stark. The Hard Facts To Swallow report, published this month, called arts funding “an increasingly closed system.” Analysing the Arts Council’s strategy for the next four years, it states: “Disguised agendas benefit a small minority of established, and most commonly London based, arts organisations and a privileged section of the population as a whole.”

A living wage for performers feels a long way off, with just one in 50 actors earning more than £20,000 a year.

Unions and organisations are fighting back, but it’s a big fight with many fronts. A glance at the Lost Arts campaign, set up by trade unions whose members are directly affected by arts cuts, gives an idea of how far and wide cuts are affecting the arts. With low pay and privatisation an increasing presence in the arts, last week saw picket lines at the National Gallery, British Museum, the Tate galleries and many other museums in across the UK. 

In this context, the French system – and the energy with which it’s defended – shows us that another way is possible.

Bertrand agrees: “Unless the state gives focus and funding to the arts, people can’t value it in the same way,” he says. “It’s about people’s education, people’s critical development, people’s personal enlightenment.”

On 14 November, Intermittents du Spectacle will stand with precarious workers all over Europe in a day of action for the right to unemployment insurance. More information is available here.

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