The Occupation of the Odéon Theater
First, watch this terrific performance of the Chilean resistance song (“The people united will never be defeated!”) in front of the Odéon Theater. (An original version is in the notes below, along with the link to the full 30 minute open air concert.)
So what is this about?
The concert was to salute and encourage the dozens of theater workers–under 100–who are occupying the venerable 1782 Odéon theater, in protest against the existential threat to their livelihoods and to French culture in general. The occupiers are the “intermittents”: not the major stars but rather the “independent cultural workers” who go from job to job, picking up work where they can get it. Think The Chorus Line, but extend it to film as well as the stage, to stagehands, the costumers, and all the others who create spectacles.
A major part of their problem is Covid-19, which forced the theaters, museums, libraries and other similar spaces to close. There was an attempted limited reopening in May 2020, and then a definitive closing at the end of October, with no clear reopening date yet in sight, as France seems to be heading into a third wave.
The theater workers are demanding that the theaters reopen, with health protections in place. But in large part the protests are driven by changes in the law. And though it seems likely that the government will adjust the enforcement of the new laws according to circumstances, the mere threats of the changes have created a real climate of uncertainty and fear.
One such issue, and one that affects only the culture workers, is the ending of l’année blanche, best translated in this case as the “pause” year. The Macron government declared it on May 6, 2020, in response to the requests of intermittents and others to extend the unemployment benefits. According to the terms of Macron’s decree, everyone whose unemployment compensation rights end, or have ended, at some point between March 1, 2020, and August 31, 2021, will have their compensation period prolonged until the end of August, 2021. The pandemic, it was thought back in May 2020, would surely be over by then. As the date is approaching, and as the vaccine rollout (astrazeneca) has been relatively slow, there is widespread concern that the economy, and especially the theaters, will not pick up fast enough.
The other problem is the new unemployment benefits law (the assurance-chômage) that is scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2021. This particular issue involves all workers, not just the theatrical sector, and It has also been subject to pushbacks, to adjustments of the calculus (in November 2020 and again in March 2021), and altogether is seen by many people as unduly harsh: in the words of a CFDT union leader in November, the government is balancing the budget “on the backs of the most precarious.” The new law is complicated, but the heart of the matter is that unemployment compensation will be lower for some 840,000 people, and perhaps more, and especially of those in the situation of the intermittents–that is, those “temps” who have short-term employment. The theory behind the new reform–actually passed in 2018, early in Macron’s tenure, but pushed back until now–is the idea that if unemployment compensation is too attractive, people will not be inclined to go looking for work.
There are two key elements of the reform that have been the subject of recent meetings in the Ministry of Labor: eligibility and degressivity.
Eligibility, which does affect the intermittent, is relatively simple: they are moving from the requirement of four months, to six months of work, in a two-year period, to qualify for unemployment benefits. Degressivity, or the monthly lowering of the amount of unemployment compensation, is the other key element of the reform that might be delayed by current circumstances. As with many other attempts at social engineering from the Right, this is a punitive measure that does not make much economic sense, since it most clearly hits the upwardly mobile and aspiring middle classes (below the age of 57, thus below retirement age). The targeted group would receive their normal compensation for six months, and then in the seventh month would see a sharp decline in the amount they receive, though not beneath a certain floor. Bruno Coquet, a government economist interviewed by Bertrand Bissuel for Le Monde, noted that the goal was to force the unemployed person to look for work. However, as Coquet noted, the figures from unemployment offices showed that 90% of the unemployed are actively looking for work, as they are required to. This kind of financial pressure placed on those with skills or degrees would likely force them to accept any offer, even those at a much lower level than was warranted by their training or experience. It would also place them in competition with the lesser skilled; and altogether in both groups, the policy would lead to a decline in purchasing power for consumer goods, which would then slow the recovery.
Because of the continuing difficulty with Covid, the Minister of Labor Elisabeth Borne, in consultation with representatives of unions and employers, in late March determined two economic conditions that would have to be met before the new unemployment law could go into effect–a sustained growth (beyond a certain number) of new hires, and a sustained decrease in new unemployment claims. The measuring of these conditions started on April 1; when the two measures are attained, the Ministry will then fix the date–no more than three months in advance–when the new, less generous conditions will go into effect. If the economic situation deteriorates in that time, then they will be put on hold again. Thus the government has made a commitment to take account of conditions on the ground; but the real question is: why make (or keep alive the threat of) these changes now, in the midst of a pandemic?
And what of l’année blanche, and the continuing likelihood of reduced theatrical and film production even beyond August 31? The issue was raised at this year’s Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, which was held in person with a masked crowd limited mostly to nominees. The attention was captured by actress Corinne Masiero, who turned her announcement of the best costume awards into a plea for the intermittents. She came onstage in a donkey skin which covered an apparently bloody rag of a dress, which she removed, leaving her completely in her “last costume,” her skin–on which she had written “No culture, no future,” and “Give us back art, Jean [Castex, the prime minister].” The video is widely available online; since it’s NSFW, I won’t post it here.
Masiero’s donkey skin was somewhat less random a choice than it appeared; she had wanted, she said, a gold dress like the one worn by Catherine Deneuve in La peau d’âne (The Donkey Skin), a film made in 1970 by Jacques Demy, but had been forced to improvise–”trop trash?” (too trashy?) she asked the announcer. Thus the caricatured image she presented would probably have been immediately recognizable to a French audience, with Deneuve as cinematic icon in a classic work of cinema.
On February 2, Roselyne Bachelot, Minister of Culture, announced a study of the situation of the theater workers. On February 4, the intermittents marched in Paris, with leaders of the CGT, to ask for a withdrawal of the new unemployment insurance law and a prolongation of the pause year. On March 4, a group of intermittents, representing the estimated 110,000 of them, began their occupation of the Odéon. To their surprise, Bachelot came during the evening of March 6, but with “empty hands,” according to Marie-José Sirach of l’Humanité. (Fourteen days later Bachelot announced that she had tested positive for Covid, was placed on oxygen, and finally, after about a week in the hospital, was released. The Labor Minister Elisabeth Borne was also hospitalized and released.)
President Macron had declined to impose a lockdown early in the new year. Forced by surging cases and shortages of intensive care beds, Macron announced on March 31 that he was extending the lockdown, already imposed on some areas, to all of mainland France until mid-May. (The terms of the lockdown, in English, are here: https://www.gouvernement.fr/en/coronavirus-covid-19.) Macron’s speech, with English translation, is here:
Macron ended this rather lengthy speech with hope: the school spring holidays and schedules would be rearranged, so that children could remain in schools; the toll in nursing homes was receding, as the elderly were being vaccinated; and the supply of vaccines was increasing, so that there was real hope that everyone could be vaccinated by the end of the summer, and that France could gradually return to the cultural and sporting events that they loved.
One of the political realities, however, is that Macron is facing a presidential election in Spring 2022. And while France has not handled the pandemic as badly as the US under Trump, the European Union commission, under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen, has badly fumbled the European response, after insisting upon controlling it for all member countries. That has an impact on Macron, who has been a staunch supporter of the EU, to the point of arranging for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the European anthem, at his victory celebration in 2017. It does not help that post-Brexit-UK is doing significantly better in getting its people vaccinated. Nor does it help that Macron was instrumental in installing Von der Leyen.
In the meantime, another concert, this time with Caribbean musicians, was planned in front of the Odéon, still occupied, for Saturday, April 3. It was forbidden on Friday night by Prefect of Police Didier Lallement.
Bertrand Bissuel, “Dégressivité des allocations-chômage: une ‘incitation au déclassement,’ selon l’OFCE,” Le Monde, January 26, 2021.https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2021/01/26/degressivite-des-allocations-chomage-une-incitation-au-declassement-selon-l-ofce_6067644_823448.html
Alain Ruello, “Réforme de l’assurance-chômage: le gouvernement ajuste sa copie,” Les Echos, March 17, 2021.https://www.lesechos.fr/economie-france/social/reforme-de-lassurance-chomage-le-gouvernement-ajuste-sa-copie-1299079
Alain Ruello, “Réforme de l’assurance-chômage: les mesures durcies, et celles suspendues,” Les Echos, March 2, 2021.https://www.lesechos.fr/economie-france/social/assurance-chomage-ce-qua-finalement-decide-le-gouvernement-1294670
Marc Vignaud, “Réforme de l’assurance-chômage: cette fois, c’est la bonne,” Le Point, March 2, 2021.https://www.lepoint.fr/economie/reforme-de-l-assurance-chomage-cette-fois-c-est-la-bonne-02-03-2021-2416042_28.php
“Emmanuel Macron annonce une ‘année blanche’ pour les intermittents,” francemusique, May 6, 2020.https://www.francemusique.fr/actualite-musicale/emmanuel-macron-annonce-une-annee-blanche-pour-les-intermittents-83633
Raphaëlle Besse Desmoulières and Bertrand Bissuel, “Les droits à l’assurance-chômage prolongés pendant la durée du confinement,” Le Monde, November 13, 2020.https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2020/11/13/assurance-chomage-le-gouvernement-prolonge-les-droits-durant-le-confinement_6059581_823448.html
”La réforme controversée de l’assurance-chômage entrera partiellement en vigueur le 1er juillet,” Le Monde, March 2, 2021.https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2021/03/02/la-reforme-partielle-de-l-assurance-chomage-entrera-en-vigueur-le-1er-juillet_6071697_3234.html
Steven Erlanger, “Vaccine ‘Fiasco’ Damages Europe’s Credibility,” The New York Times, April 2, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/world/europe/europe-coronavirus-vaccine.html
“How Europe has mishandled the pandemic,” The Economist, March 31, 2021.https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/03/31/how-europe-has-mishandled-the-pandemic?utm_campaign=coronavirus-special-edition&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_source=salesforce-marketing-cloud
Marie-José Sirach, “#Occupons. À Paris, le préfet Lallement interdit un concert devant l’Odéon,” l’Humanité, April 6, 2021.https://www.humanite.fr/occupons-paris-le-prefet-lallement-interdit-un-concert-devant-lodeon-702498