The world’s favorite film fest wouldn’t be the same without a protest or two to liven up the proceedings and give those smartly turned-out French riot police something to do.
Just which group will take to the streets in any given year is the great imponderable. Stroppy students? Angry airline staff? Wound-up showbiz workers?
Whichever it is, they can be counted upon to screw up your travel/movie watching/eating plans while on the French Riviera.
Infected by Cannes’ festive mood — and perhaps the red carpet, the glistening Mediterranean — Croisette protesters tend to be a pretty harmless lot, swapping sandwiches and ribald jokes as they rubberneck at the stars along with other fest bystanders.
However, the past year has seen Gallic unrest reach unprecedented levels, between suburban rioting and the recent clashes over a controversial new work contract.
In a conflict dragging into its fourth year, Gallic culture minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres has yet to make peace with the showbiz workers, whose unemployment fund is the subject of another unpopular reform.
Last year, the CGT, which reps all categories of workers, took to the streets of Cannes, marching against the government’s decision to get rid of the Penetcost as a French public holiday.
The showbiz workers, however, kept a low profile, organizing a press conference that did not make much of a splash in the media.
But in 2004, the showbiz workers staged a high-er-profile event. Eleven of them climbed the steps bearing the letters that spelled out “NEGOTIATE” on their backs. They also organized a street march on the Croisette.
“Cannes is a great place to demonstrate because the world’s media is there, but it is a double-edged sword,” says Claude Michel, secretary of CGT du Spectacle showbiz workers union, who negotiated the protest with Cannes honchos, and took part in the protest. “Everyone in Cannes is trying to be seen, so if you don’t do something that stands out you won’t be noticed at all.”
The massive amount of journos and photogs on the Croisette certainly paid attention. “What we did definitely got us noticed. We were bombarded with calls from journalists, and when I was in Korea a week after the festival people there told me they’d seen us on TV,” says Michel.
But do such high-profile deomonstrations add some leverage?
Two years on and the government has not withdrawn an agreement signed by the employers org Medef. But Michel thinks it is worth it.
“It was efficacious. Unfortunately we haven’t obtained all that we wanted, but in Cannes the culture minister promised and did obtain funds to keep on paying benefit to those people excluded under the new rules. That’s where we are now. In the past two years, 24,452 people — a quarter of all showbiz workers — have been able to receive benefits because of the exceptional fund.”
This year they are hoping to hold a debate or a press conference with Directors Fortnight in the Noga Hilton.
“The important thing is that our cause is still present in people’s minds, and therefore on the political agenda. We haven’t won yet — but we still could,” Michel says with optimism.
And these folks have a lot of support inside the Palais des Festivals, from the Gallic community at any rate, since French filmmakers and thesps, successful or not, share the same benefits system.
Perhaps they will be the upholders of the Cannes protest tradition this year.