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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

Visit La Scena Musicale Online Reviews. [Index] Critiques de La Scena Musicale Online

Government Support for the Arts: A Cautionary Tale

By Frank Cadenhead / May 3, 2004

When the wheels fell off a French government program designed to help guarantee the livelihood of a certain number of artists and musicians, it caused a ruckus which is still echoing in the corridors of power. At birth, 35 years ago, it seemed like a good idea: those laboring in the performing arts (actors, mimes, dancers, stagehands, cellists, puppeteers, etc.) were to be given a special unemployment insurance program to help make their lives more secure.

But this program didn’t just chug to a halt, it exploded loudly like a balloon and the resulting mess left all parties with stains on their clothes. There had been ominous rumblings, but when the results of a government investigation hit the headlines, the numbers were nothing short of a scandal. This program, pertaining to a cadre of workers numbering still in five digits, had generated a deficit approaching one billion - yes, one billion - euros. Depending on who you read, this was somewhere between a third and a half of the entire unemployment insurance deficit for all of France. This program, and the intermittents, the temporary arts workers who bloated the roster, became suddenly the stuff of talk shows and editorials everywhere.

When this all broke, in January 2003, the new right of center government had been in power less than one year. The handsome Minister of Culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, formerly head of the Paris modern art museum, the Centre Pompidou, was well received by press and public and a new artistic age seemed on the horizon. Earlier this month he was unceremoniously given the boot in a government reshuffle and a loyal political suit was installed in his chair at the ministry’s Palais Royal digs. The new minister’s resume does not even hint at having experience or interest in the arts.

Aillagon is only the latest casualty in this long running war. He began dealing with the crisis sensibly. He gathered together all the "social partners," the unions representing the workers, the association of performing arts producers, UNEDIC (the quasi-government agency that operates the unemployment insurance program), and others. There had been cries to eliminate the program, which does not exist in any other European country, and make the temporary arts workers share the same unemployment program as others. Aillagon tried another tact: gently applying the pruning shears.

Eliminating the program of intermittents would smack of philistinism for many French. The public is proud of its arts programs and the government’s sizeable slice of 1% of its budget to the arts is only one manifestation. But are the unionized temps feeding at the public trough at the expense of the average Pierre who writes a check every year for taxes? Finally, of course, any deficit in the unemployment insurance program is paid for by the taxpayer. The debate was further highlighted in a recent TV discussion when a spokesman for the largest union for the intermittents, the CGT, had to deal with a phone-in question. His answer, after much verbal contortions, was that an intermittent was different than a plumber because, well, a plumber can’t sing or dance.

I always have a problem explaining this brouhaha to my American friends, who shake their heads at the term "cultural politics" and view it as an oxymoron. Even my wife, born in Paris but who lived in California and Canada for many years, was surprised to learn that American has no Minister of Culture. Whether or not you subscribe to the old Richard Hofstadter thesis of the role of anti-intellectualism in American life, most Americans do subscribe to the philosophy that if you are dumb enough to choose an art career, you deserve the resultant deprivation. They would be dumbstruck to hear their top leaders, from the President on down, discussing the finer points of a special compensation package for a handful of marginal artists and their backstage facilitators.

But the French see things differently. Most of them have attended schools with names like Claude Debussy or Honoré Balzac and consider being an artist a respectable calling. The plight of the intermittents has been discussed by both President Chirac and Prime Minister Raffarin in televised addressed and press conferences. The proposed solution, forged in meetings between Aillagon and the "social partners," was actually agreed to by a few of the unions in June 2003. It obliged the artists to work 507 hours to earn 11 months of unemployment compensation, down from 12 months formerly. Aillagon, with an embarrassing naivety, proclaimed the program "saved."

But the CGT, the most left of the leftist unions, and home to a majority of the intermittents, held out. They declared total war on the reforms and, smelling defeat for the government, unleashed the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse to do battle. The first of the dreaded specters was the manifestation - "mani" for short. This means flooding the streets with traffic-snarling, gaily dressed, noise-maker blowing, banner-carrying demonstrators. Those non-French who do not understand this cross between a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade and a raucous political rally can never truly appreciate the subtlety of French culture. The bully-boy tactics used, something less than Fascist thugs, something more than football hooliganism, are a political rite of passage for many young French men and women. Docile flics only observe the frequent damage caused and try to duck the objects tossed in their direction. Things that would earn a demonstrator a cracked rib, dislocated jaw or 12 to 20 months incarceration in Chicago or LA are only frowned on by the impassive gendarmes.

The second horseman was that of "solidarity." The spectacle of a multi-millionaire film star expressing his or her solidarity with temporary workers they see heading for soup lines as a result of government arrogance was only one example of the festering hypocrisy on display. Without a whiff of irony, major producers and festival directors wrung their hands at the collective impoverishment of their "valued colleagues" for press and TV consumption. June and July of last year finds almost half of the opera and ballet dates cancelled at the Opera de Paris. But are not they on salary or contracts with the Opera and are therefore not actually temporary workers? True enough. The only time they employ intermittents in significant numbers is for a "cast-of-thousands" production like Prokofiev’s "War and Peace." But the lucky swells receiving their monthly checks from Opera coffers want to be seen standing shoulder to shoulder with their desperate, shivering brothers warming their hands over fires on the sidewalks and clutching close their hungry babies. A six year old child could see the need to reform this system of indemnisation but you could find only one or two fearless artists (the pianist Aldo Ciccolini wrote a thoughtful op-ed piece) who dared to express a different view from the unified front of the camp of the intermittents and their supporters.

When Margaret Thatcher was the British PM, she knew she did not have a single vote from the artistic or intellectual elite but soldiered on, opting instead for the votes of the unwashed majority. French pols do not have it so easy; telling the aesthetic elite to slog off is simply not an option. So, in June, compromises were proffered. First, the reforms, the minor trimming of the benefits, were put off for one year. New meetings were held with much fanfare. More accommodations were proposed.

But the unions and their fellow travelers smelled blood and unleashed the third and most terrifying horseman of all, Devastation. Early in July a scorched earth policy was declared on the vast French summer festival system with the highest profile ones the early targets. It was already warm in Aix-en-Provence before the world renowned festival started and the talks between festival directors and the unions collapsed into a mutual shouting match. It was there that a now-famous episode was on ugly display for all the world to see on their evening news. Not content to harass the performance with whistles and firecrackers outside the open air venue, the protestors hurled insults and garbage at the exiting audience members - certainly the world record low point of art in recent decades.

The next morning the festival was cancelled and the vast theater festival at Avignon was soon to follow. The festival Radio France/Montpellier joined, a few weeks later, the ever expanding list of festivals tossing in the towel. I was in the audience in another Traviata, in August at the romantic Chorégies d’Orange festival (one of the few major festivals to get on stage), when Rolando Villazon and Inva Mula, the hapless lovers, stood silently on stage until a remote-controlled car alarm hidden in the trees above the Roman amphitheater was found and disabled. Only a few editorialized about the "cultural suicide" being self-inflicted on the performing arts. The unions could only pat themselves on the back for a job well done. The heart was cut out of the French summer season and the few performers and backstage staff who wanted to work were silenced by the jackboots of union solidarity.

My first inkling of where the problems lie was about two years ago. An American actor friend, living and working in Paris, told me to look at "the TV and film industry." He knew that the coming storm did not have much to do with his friends, the stage actors and classical musicians trying to make a living in Paris. Recent government studies have proved him prescient and verified that real abuses are widespread in television and movie production. Investigations have shown that the studios are improperly pumping up the "intermittent" status of those who work for them to avoid having to hire full time staff. The biggest offenders are ironically the state supported France Television channels.

Another area of abuse was confirmed by the young man who has cut my hair for the last several years and also does hair on film locations. His guilty admission confirmed another source of the bloated budget. The definition of what constitutes an "arts" worker has been out of control for years and was one of the biggest contributors to the bursting of the bubble. Receptionist, drivers, hairdressers, even security staff, have been milking the system that has no effective controls nor has adequately defined who is eligible.

And, after a period of calm early this year, the forth horseman was unleashed, Persistence, and there is no end in sight to the conflict. Legislation has been submitted to the National Assembly. More meetings have been held. More optimistic press releases are cranked out by the government. But just last week, the strikers took over the ceremonies for the annual drama awards, equivalent to the New York "Tonys," to the general anger of those in the audience. The awards were finally distributed and the evening sputtered to a finish with poor lighting and no microphones. The Cannes Film Festival in a week has been threatened with closure by the unions. And aim has been taken against the very festivals that were cancelled in that last catastrophic summer. The CGT, emboldened by a strong showing by the Socialist Party in the recent Regional elections, is holding out for nothing less than cancellation of all the reforms.

As I mail my ticket request for the Aix-en-Provence Festival, I wonder if it will ever see the light of day. Worried about the loss of the hotel deposit and the dismay of friends coming with us, I thought about not going. But another friend pointed out the obvious. The worst that can happen is that you spend a few days in a lovely provincial town with world-class restaurants.

But what about France? What about the money they spend on their "cultural exception" which protects their performing arts and media institutions from foreign competition? What about the special financial help given to the intermittents to guarantee their freedom to follow their craft? When the most recent "Best French Film" César Award was given to a work from Quebec, many were surprised. The French have a right to ask about the return on the money they are spending.

Frank Cadenhead

April 29, 2004

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