France’s Drama Theaters Occupied to Support Freelance Workers

French actor Corinne Masiero’s politically charged strip-tease during the Cesar Awards last month was just one of many protests staged across France to support freelance workers in the film, TV and live event industries that are still crippled by the pandemic.

Labor organization CGT Spectacle has been spearheading a nation-wide occupation of drama theaters since March 4, and momentum hasn’t died down in the last month, with nearly 100 venues still occupied across France as of April 19.

It all started at the Odeon Theater, which is flooded on Saturdays with freelance artists, crew members, caterers, dancers, costume designers and musicians, among others, all of whom have been out of work for months and fear for their livelihoods, even if most are still protected by unemployment subsidies.

Week after week, the movement is embraced by workers beyond the culture sector, even Gilet Jaunes (the populist yellow-vest protesters), who are demanding the withdrawal of the imminent reform of unemployment insurance, which is supposed to take effect in July. On Saturday, the Odeon was filled with jazz and people from all walks of life convened to perform a choreographed dance.

In France, entertainment industry freelancers traditionally have access to unemployment subsidies once they have completed 507 hours of work annually — the equivalent of around three months a year. Due to the pandemic, the government gave industry workers compulsory access to subsidies for 2020 and 2021 through an exceptional scheme called “année blanche” (blank year), which is set to end in July.

But the question now is how freelancers will qualify for support in 2022.

Denis Gravouil, general secretary of CGT Spectacle, says the scheme should be extended by an additional year because workers won’t have completed enough hours in 2021 to access the regular unemployment subsidies the year after.

Many live shows have already been canceled this summer, including the massive charity-driven annual music festival Solidays, which was initially scheduled to run June 18-20, as well as the Eurockéennes, one of France’s largest rock music festivals which was slated for July 1-4. More events will or have already been canceled due to current health restrictions, even if France President Emmanuel Macron recently said during a televised address that some culture venues will reopen in mid-May.

“We’re seeing so many people from different sectors [at the occupations] because the cancellations due to the pandemic are affecting us all, and after three lockdowns, we don’t know when our activity will be back to normal,” says Mathieu Crochemore, a musician who hasn’t been able to secure gigs for a year and doesn’t have anything lined up for the summer.

“The culture sector is the second most impacted industry after the aeronautic and we’re not being helped adequately,” says Crochemore.

Nelly Paubel, a dancer and choreographer for live outdoors shows, says she hardly got any paid jobs for a year and is worried that shows won’t be scheduled in the three-month period before July. “That means that at least 80% of shows that were supposed to be hosted in 2021 will not see the light of day, and that also means that I will not have worked enough hours in 2021 to maintain my status and receive subsidies after July,” says Paubel.

For young people who have recently graduated and haven’t completed enough hours to seek benefits, the situation is equally difficult. Eileen Montfort, a young actor who is occupying the Odeon Theater, says many fellow actors are completely excluded from any subsidy schemes because they graduated before the start of the pandemic and haven’t been getting paid jobs.

“We are in a precarious position and often end up working for free or almost nothing because we have nothing else going,” says Montfort, who says some of her friends can’t afford to pay their rent.

Gravouil, who is also a cinematographer, says freelance workers in the film industry have so far been less impacted than those in the theater and live event sectors because film, TV productions and filming didn’t stop, save for the first two-month lockdown.

“The drop in employment hasn’t been as brutal in the film and TV industries, but it will come at a later stage because the hundreds of films that haven’t been able to be released in theaters are worrying a lot of people, and have begun causing a [slow] down and delays to production,” Gravouil warns.

Those who are most at risk of being unemployed, he says, are individuals working on smaller productions, whose filming has been pushed.

“In the theater sector, the [shock] was immediate, with nearly half of freelancers working in live events unemployed in 2020,” says Gravouil, who notes that freelancers working in private theaters (those that aren’t backed by the French government) are the most impacted because these venues received hardly any subsidies and don’t have the resources to pursue rehearsals for plays in order to prepare for the reopening of theaters.

Although the French government announced in March that an additional €97 million ($117 million) will be injected in the culture sector, Gravouil says that’s not enough. The labor union is demanding from the government a €500 million ($595 million) injection to jump-start the sector; provide a backstop for freelancers who have had their contracts canceled due to the pandemic; fund workshops and rehearsals; and organize live shows and stage plays outdoors throughout France once culture venues are allowed to reopen.

Though Macron recently hinted at a mid-May reopening for some culture venues, Gravouil says the sector desperately needs more details to start preparing. It’s not feasible for many venues to open with a 35% seating limitation, as it has been suggested in the French media, says Gravouil.

“Many owners of private theaters are telling us that they don’t even think they’ll be able to participate in the Avignon Festival [one of the world’s biggest drama theater festivals] in July because their fixed costs [travel, accommodation, etc.] will be the same as usual, while their revenues will be a third of what they normally are because of the restrictions,” says Gravouil, who notes that the movement is now expanding to other countries like Italy and Belgium, where a few theaters are currently occupied.

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