Cannes fest glitters and jitters

Protests and hoopla to vie for opening night spotlight

Cannes Film Festival planners embarked on a campaign to restore the excitement and energy that was missing from the event last year. This year’s results may far exceed their expectations.

Amid a stepped-up Hollywood presence and a revved-up star quotient, fest organizers and local shopkeepers and restaurateurs braced for trouble as today’s opening day ceremonies threatened to become a combustible bouillabaisse of French political strife and film-biz hype.

Disgruntled French showbiz workers threatened to take to the streets today. But the size and scale of their protests were difficult to predict as fest top brass and protest leaders met for hours behind closed doors.

Striking showbiz workers were demanding to make speeches on the steps of the Palais during opening-night ceremonies, an option fest management has publicly ruled out. But pressure was building Tuesday as other Gallic protest groups, ranging from farmers unions to research workers, threatened to join the demonstration, citing cuts to their unemployment benefit system.

This year’s festival lineup — with Brad Pitt, Michael Moore and Quentin Tarantino taking turns on the red-carpeted Palais steps — promises plenty of hoopla. But Hollywood razzmatazz will be fighting with politics to take center stage.

Cannes officials heightened security along the Croisette and Cannes mayor Bernard Brochant announced he would take “any measures needed” to protect the festival. Some 1,000 additional police were deployed to the city.

The political tension grew more profound in recent days, as numerous groups spoke of venting their complaints to the assembled press.

Blockade

“We’ll be at Cannes with part-time workers from other sectors to block this city run by business,” said a spokesman for the showbiz workers in the Ile de France region. “There will be many, many workers in this mobilization.

“Our goal is not to disrupt the festival or keep new talent from being discovered, but to denounce the system and its treatment of cinema as merchandise.”

David Lisnard, deputy mayor of Cannes and managing director of the Palais, said the fest is “essential” to local economy. “The Cannes Film Festival is the biggest media event in the world, in which 5,000 journalists attend. It is essential and vital for Cannes.”

Along with other events throughout the year, the Palais du Festival gives work to 12,000 people and generates revenues of around $700 million, he said.

Preparing for the worst

In the weeks leading up to the festival, officials held a series of meetings with local hotel workers and restaurateurs. There was a security briefing at the Noga Hilton Monday afternoon attended by municipal police, private security firms and executives from Canal Plus.

Terrorism is a lingering concern in the aftermath of the March 11 train bombings in Madrid. But the labor disruptions have moved to the fore.

Recent days have brought the usual signs of the festival coming to life. Ten giant yachts dropped anchor in the Cannes harbor and hotel rooms filled with thousands of film industry workers. Gardeners trimmed trees and spruced up flower beds along the Croisette, as a 50-foot crane fastened a giant “Spider-Man 2” banner to the ornate roof of the Hotel Carlton.

Last year’s Cannes Film Festival was a sleepy event whose biggest controversies were artistic. Hollywood’s presence was muted and, despite heightened political anxiety on the heels of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there were no disruptions.

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