PARIS — The French arts world was reeling Thursday after the Avignon Festival, theater’s answer to Cannes, was axed on the third day of a bitter nationwide strike by showbiz workers.
Helmer Bertrand Tavernier, who signed a film industry petition supporting the action over reforms to the showbiz industry’s unemployment benefits, told Daily Variety that he was shocked Avignon had been cancelled.
Former Canal Plus topper Pierre Lescure called the fest the symbol of culture and creation in France. “It is terrible that they couldn’t find a way of saving it,” he said.
The three-week Avignon Festival had been due to open last Tuesday, but the curtain never rose on a single act before organizers called it off — for the first time in the fest’s 57-year history.
An opera festival in Aix-en-Provence was also axed Thursday, after raucous strikers banged on tin cans and heckled spectators filing into Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
The directors of both events said they could not go on in the face of the continuing protest by actors and technicians, who have disrupted cultural fixtures up and down the country all week in a bid to derail reforms that were recently approved by bosses and some unions.
Film and TV shoots also have been hit, including an untitled Nancy Meyers project starring Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton and Keanu Reeves. Festivals in Rennes and La Rochelle also have been scuttled.
Culture Minister Jean Jacques Aillagon lashed out at the strikers Thursday, calling the cancellations “a terrible waste for artists, technicians, the public and for the economy of the regions and the good image of our country.”
The festivals will have to reimburse tens of thousands of unused tickets and are expected to post deficits of several million dollars.
Meanwhile, desperate hoteliers, restaurant owners and shopkeepers in Avignon were bracing themselves for a mass exodus as disappointed visitors pack their bags and leave. With the main fest closed, only a few fringe performances will go ahead.
The cost to Avignon has been estimated at 23 million euros ($26 million), while the festival in Aix-en-Provence usually pumps an extra $8 million into the local economy.
A sound technician whose play was a victim of the Avignon cancellation lambasted the strikers, complaining that their actions would send thousands of showbiz workers to the unemployment line quicker than the reforms.
The government changes would require performers to work 507 hours over 10 months to qualify for eight months of benefits rather than 507 hours over 12 months for a year’s benefits. Changes will compensate for a $955 million shortfall in the sector’s benefit fund, which the government is forced to meet.
Government officials have come in for harsh criticism over the way they have handled the sensitive reforms, announced with disastrous timing on the eve of summer festival season.
“I’m not sure breaking the tools of one’s trade is the right way to go about things, but it was an error typical of this government to try to force these reforms through, in contempt of those concerned,” said Tavernier.
Lescure also felt that the government had mishandled the situation, noting, “Trying to pass these reforms before the summer was a provocation.”