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15.03.2021 Europe

French theatre occupations spread as culture workers protest closures, reforms

By RFI with Mike Woods
LISTEN MAR 15, 2021

Students and workers in France's cultural sector were occupying about 30 theatres, opera houses and other venues on Monday in a small but expanding movement against Covid-19 closures and proposed reforms to compensation packages. The government has extended its aid package to the culture sector but dismissed the occupations as counterproductive.

Since a handful of theatre students and trade unionists began occupying Paris's symbolic Théâtre de l'Odéon on 4 March, similar protests have popped up at about 30 cultural sites across the country.

Each occupation follows a similar pattern: small numbers of protesters – in general one or two dozen – are granted access to the spaces by theatre directors who generally support the occupations. 

The occupiers bring food, health supplies, clothing and sleeping bags to coexist in the same buildings at the theatre companies that, although they are not opening the halls to the public, continue to use the stage for rehearsals. 

Support of theatre companies

“In a spirit of dialogue and trust, the Colline supports the gesture of the students who have come here,” said Wajdi Mouawad, director of the Colline national theatre in eastern Paris, in a statement. 

“They are at home here. Our duty is to listen to them, to understand and encourage them as they put their ideas into practice.”

David Bobée, director of the Théâtre du Nord in Lille, expressed his “complete and total support to this new mobilisation” of about 20 people, mostly members of the SFA-CGT trade union representing culture workers, in what he called an appeal to “revive the preforming arts as quickly as possible”. 

While mainly presented as protests of the prolonged closures due to Covid-19 restrictions, the occupations also come with demands to scrap a reform that would affect compensation for freelance performers and to extend the current period for which compensation is granted. 

Students of the performing arts also expressed concern about their career prospects in one of the most heavily affected sectors of the past year's health restrictions. 

“We are at the junction of two places: the world of culture and the world of students,” 23-year-old theatre student Lucas Martini, one of about 50 taking part in the occupation at the opera house in Lyon, told AFP agency. 

Government unimpressed by occupations

The culture industry, along with restaurants, hospitality and tourism, has been one of the most heavily affected by the Covid epidemic in France, and has benefited from a series of relief packages

Following talks between the cabinet ministers and union representatives last week, the government announced another 20 million euros in aid for the culture sector.

“No other country in the world supports culture like we do in our country,” Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot said last week.  

But the gesture was dismissed as being not enough by protesters, whose movement has found little sympathy in the government ranks. 

“Occupying cultural sites is not the right way, it's useless,” Bachelot said. “These stunts are dangerous, because they threaten fragile cultural sites.” 

(with newswires)

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