Labor Dispute Clouds Opening of Cannes
The Cannes International Film Festival, which usually counts on big-name stars and underdressed starlets to provide the excitement, will open on Wednesday under a cloud, as thousands of French actors and technicians prepare to carry a bitter dispute over unemployment benefits to this ritzy Côte d’Azur resort.
They will not say whether they intend to sabotage the 12-day festival, but no one doubts their ability to do so. Last year they forced the cancellation of summer arts festivals across France. Since then the protesters have invaded live television shows, disrupted movie and theater awards ceremonies and organized strikes at theaters and opera houses.
They have planned a news conference for Thursday and a protest march on Friday down the Croisette, Cannes’s maritime walkway to the Palais des Festivals. But they could do more, from trying to interrupt the opening and closing ceremonies to blocking the entrance to the palais, invading beachside television studios or simply heckling the stars posing in their finery for photographers before evening screenings.
Actors like Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Uma Thurman and Emmanuelle Béart and directors like Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodóvar and Michael Moore will be flying into Cannes in the coming days, uncertain what to expect.
This uncertainty has thrown the French government into near panic. Last week it tried to buy off the protesters with a $24 million “special provisional fund.” When this failed, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French prime minister, denounced what he called blackmail and ordered 600 riot police officers to Cannes. When this appeared to add fuel to the fire, he appealed Monday to France’s main business association to reopen talks with representatives of the entertainment industry workers.
The dispute stems from an agreement reached last June by the business association and three labor unions to reduce the unemployment benefits for self-employed actors and technicians, known here as intermittents. The association said the unemployment fund was running a $1 billion annual deficit and was widely abused. Two leftist unions said then that the agreement would strip 18,000 of 100,000 workers of all their rights and immediately mobilized their forces.
The government was not a party to the agreement but was soon drawn into an unsuccessful effort to save last summer’s festivals. In March the dispute forced the replacement of the culture minister. Now the government seems trapped: both the protesters and leading show business figures are pressing it to “save” Cannes, yet it cannot force the business association to cancel last June’s agreement. In any event, the association has refused to do so.
The intermittents have in their favor the French tradition of bowing to the importance of culture; they have argued that French film, television, dance and theater are all threatened by what they describe as an attack on their livelihoods. After all, they say, 4,300 out of 5,000 dancers, 24,000 out of 25,000 actors and 27,000 out of 30,000 musicians are self-employed. Many French movie, dance and theater directors are supporting their views.
The business association has responded that not only do many performing artists receive unemployment benefits while working, but also that the growth in intermittents to 102,600 today from 41,000 in 1992 suggests abuse of the system. Oddly, perhaps, the association has not argued that French actors and technicians have benefits that are unheard of in other European countries.
So far, the only demonstration against the intermittents was held on Tuesday in Cannes, where about 1,000 shopkeepers and restaurant owners gathered to demand a smooth and successful festival amid banners proclaiming “Vive Cannes” and “Vive le festival.”
“Cannes has decided to raise its voice because the film festival is our cultural pride,” David Lisnard, the deputy mayor, said. “It is above all an economic reality and a social necessity.”
Even more than the cancellation of last summer’s arts festivals, disruption of the Cannes festival would be a blemish on France’s image of itself as a land of culture. The last time the festival was disturbed — it was canceled after one day — was in May 1968, when directors like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle picked up the banner of the anti-government student movement in Paris.
Of course this year’s protesters may simply decide to make their presence felt without major disruptions. If they do, they will win the gratitude of the French movie industry, a useful ally in their battle to recover full unemployment benefits. And with the start of France’s arts festival season just six weeks away, they will still have ample opportunity to flex their muscles. Autor: ALAN RIDING