CULTURE IN LOCKDOWN

Final curtain? French culture sector hits back against crippling Covid closures

Out-of-work French culture and tourism workers occupy the iconic theatre on Paris's Left Bank to demand more government support after a year of pandemic that has devastated their incomes.
Out-of-work French culture and tourism workers occupy the iconic theatre on Paris's Left Bank to demand more government support after a year of pandemic that has devastated their incomes. AP - Francois Mori

After months of enforced closures, France’s cinemas, theatres and museums are at a standstill with no news as to when they might reopen. This is despite petitions and street protests held by thousands of industry professionals, who say France's celebrated culture sector is at risk of collapsing altogether.

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Actors, dancers, museum staff and other artists joined calls by the CGT Spectacle union Thursday afternoon to pressure the government into offering better guarantees for their futures – a year after the health crisis either partially or fully dismantled their careers.

An open letter by more than 800 film industry professionals, published in Le Monde this week, complained that unreleased feature films were piling up on distributors’ shelves, backlogged because France’s 2,046 cinemas remained shut “against advice” from the government’s own scientifique advisory council on Covid measures.

“Each week of closures adds to the disaster that’s unfolding,” warned the letter, addressed to President Emmanuel Macron and signed by high-profile industry figures including director Jacques Audiard, actress and screenwriter Valérie Donzelli and actress Léa Seydoux.

"The future of the profession is being mortgaged. We can still stand in line to buy sneakers or ice cream, we can crowd into supermarkets or take the train, but we can’t go to the movies or the theatre.”

'Traffic jam' of films

While work has dried up for much of the entertainment industry – notably dancers, stage actors and musicians –many filmmakers, especially those with deep pockets, have forged ahead with their projects. This is despite uncertainties over distribution.

“When we emerge from this crisis, there’ll be a traffic jam of films waiting to be screened in the movie theatres,” Paris-based screenwriter Hedi Sassi told RFI.

“But they’ll be the bigger films that have the means to pay for a new release, for new posters and for new distribution.

“It's going to be very difficult for small films to exist.”

As part of Thursday’s national day of action, protesters occupied the Odeon Theatre in Paris’s 6th arrondissement – a symbolic venue that was also stormed during the protests of May 1968, and again in 2016. Street marches, meanwhile, were also held in Marseille, Bordeaux, Nice and Strasbourg. 

Musicians perform as part of a protest occupying the iconic Odeon Theatre in Paris, to demand more government support after a year of the Covid pandemic which has crippled the cultural industry. 4 March 2021.
Musicians perform as part of a protest occupying the iconic Odeon Theatre in Paris, to demand more government support after a year of the Covid pandemic which has crippled the cultural industry. 4 March 2021. AP - Francois Mori

Culture sector 'worst hit'

Artistic creation must be supported, the protesters insist – while the CGT warns that France’s culture sector has been “the public service the most permanently affected” by ongoing health restrictions that have no end in sight.

The union wants to see an increase in wages, an extension of the so-called "année blanche" scheme that gives financial help to “intermittent” freelance workers who bounce from project to project, and a plan to support students in the cultural sector.

Without the usual “sharing and exchanges” brought about by the creation of artistic works such as plays and concerts, valuable social and networking links are being lost, the CGT says.

“It's a disaster,” says Arnaud Seite, owner of the Péniche Marcounet, a bar and concert venue moored on the Seine River. 

“We normally have concerts all year round with a great jazz program; the best jazz musicians come to play with us, but we’ve been completely stopped since October.”

Opinions mixed

While it’s “annoying” to see other sectors carry on doing business while the culture sector struggles, Seite feels the government has done a fair job of offsetting the forced closures with incentives such as partial unemployment. 

“It's very difficult to take a position … We have musician friends in the United States who have had to work at McDonald's or look for odd jobs because they don't have the same financial help we do,” he says. 

“Even if it's never enough, there’s still help. We’re not the worst off in France.” 

For its part, the CGT is pushing the government to negotiate conditions for the eventual reopening of cultural venues, something it laments has been “lacking”, and to discuss the creation of a national council of the performing arts professions. 

There are worries that, although France’s culture sector has limped on until now, the biggest blows lie further down the line. 

"We would like to clarify something the public does not know but, much more seriously, which you do not seem to know either," the film industry’s letter told President Macron.

“This isn’t just the nightmare of 2020. This is the nightmare of the years to come.”

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