In an ironic plot, cultural workers who occupy theaters in France are now blocking the reopening of theaters


Cultural venues can finally reopen to the public in France after months of lockdown. But artistic workers who have occupied theaters to protest pandemic-related closures say their needs have still not been met – and many will not leave, preventing some theaters from reopening.

For two months, culture workers in France have been demonstrating on site in many theaters across the country, demanding they reopen and staff have better financial support. But when theaters, museums and cinemas were finally given the green light to open on May 19 after more than six months of lockdown, few protesters shouted victory.

Instead, many refused to leave the theaters where they were camping. Some 70 to 80 theaters across the country remain occupied to some extent, according to the General Confederation of the French Performing Arts Syndicate, which helped spark the protest movement that has now grown well beyond their initial rallying call. The list of protesters’ demands has grown, and in some extreme cases, performance spaces are still eagerly awaiting reopening as their spaces remain occupied.

Protesters in front of the Odeon theater, occupied against a reform of unemployment insurance, in Paris on April 23, 2021. Photo: Stéphane de Sakutin / AFP via Getty Images.

The situation is slowly changing as more and more activists move to alternative cultural centers. At Marseille’s national theater La Criée, however, the show cannot quite go on. “I had to cancel performances,” the downcast theater director Macha Makeïeff told Artnet News. “For security reasons, it is impossible for us to open under these circumstances.”

Describing a dead end worthy of her own dramatic interpretation, Makeïeff said she felt stuck between a rock and a hard place, despite ongoing negotiations with the occupiers. “There is something absurd about a whole sector of [artistic] devouring activity, ”she said. “We want to be responsive to their demands and, at the same time, we absolutely cannot prevent art, artists and theater workers from doing the work they love.” Indeed, the return to work of cultural workers had initially been the main objective of the movement.

Going to court is not something Makeïeff wants to do, as other French theaters have done, although she said the decision is not entirely up to her, as director of a space supported by the ‘State. In any case, Makeïeff agrees with several of the unfulfilled demands of the mostly student demonstrators who still occupy La Criée. They are calling for an extension of Covid aid for intermittent workers, the reversal of controversial unemployment insurance reforms and increased investment in job creation.

The government responded by pushing back the Covid relief period to December 31 from its earlier end date in August and by pledging additional funding of 150 million euros ($ 182 million).

That’s not the same as cutting it off, Ghislain Gauthier, deputy general secretary of the performing arts union, told Artnet News. He estimated that self-employed and temporary culture workers have lost some 600 million euros ($ 731 million) in income since the start of the pandemic and that most of the new government investments in the arts are not directed to job creation.

“We have a long way to go before working conditions normalize,” he said, adding that the reduction in unemployment insurance through government reforms planned for a period of “little or no of work is unheard of ”.

“We are heading towards a catastrophic situation, where we risk losing professionals in the industry who will seek other jobs. [outside the arts],” he said.

Despite this, the General Confederation of the Trade Union, which is not in charge of the occupation movement, asked the demonstrators “not to block the shows” and to negotiate by other means with the theaters. Their message seems to have struck home: Top theaters, like the Odeon Theater in Paris, slowly started opening following canceled performances and a tense standoff with protesters who eventually moved to the 104 cultural center on Sunday. May 23. Either way, the occupation continues, ”said Gauthier.

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