Workers sink theater nods, prep fest protest

PARIS — Angry Gallic showbiz workers threatening to disrupt next month’s Cannes Film Festival and other cultural events in France demonstrating their strength Monday by making a fiasco of the Molieres theater awards.

The French theater industry’s big night appeared doomed late in the evening when technicians downed tools in solidarity with strikers — protesting unemployment benefit cuts — who occupied Paris’ Theatre des Champs Elysees, where the event was to take place.

Celebs and theater folk left their seats and made for the exit. But as the auditorium emptied, organizers decided the show must go on — minus stage lighting and mikes. “There has never been a Molieres night like this before,” bemoaned one participant.

The Molieres debacle followed a day of demonstrations in several cities and echoed the mass disruption of last summer’s cultural calendar, halting the Avignon theater festival for the first time in its history.

With tension mounting again, the Gallic cultural community is terrified the same thing could happen this year — with the Cannes Film Fest a high-profile target.

Among the banners held aloft Monday as protesters trudged through the Paris rain was one sporting a jibe at Cannes: “La Palme Dort — Reveillons la,” a play on words (regarding Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or) meaning “The Palm’s asleep — let’s wake it up.”

Last week the national committee representing showbiz workers said it would hold a press conference in Cannes on May 14, two days after the fest opens.

“The Cannes festival 2004 cannot carry on as normal,” the committee said.

France’s new culture minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, held talks with industry reps, politicos, bosses and employees Monday but made little headway.

Dissatisfied

“He didn’t give us the strong message we were looking for,” one union rep pronounced.

Meanwhile, the minister — caught between the determination of showbiz workers to preserve their benefit system and the government’s wish to slash the system’s e800 million ($951 million) deficit — sat on the fence.

“It is urgent for me to listen and to understand what everyone has to say before making propositions to the prime minister,” he declared afterward.

Under the old system, showbiz workers must work 507 hours in 12 months to qualify for benefits. The reform shortens the period to 10 months.

The vast majority of showbiz workers oppose the reforms, saying they penalize those who most need the money.

There are also complaints that the system is widely abused by employers who save money by fraudulently declaring other categories of staff as showbiz temps.

(Lisa Klaussmann contributed to this report.)

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