Culture

French theatres occupied as protesters demand reopening

Culture workers attend a general assembly after occupying the Theatre Graslin, central Nantes on March 10, 2021, to demand the reopening of cultural places and theatres, a year after the first closing measures to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. (AFP / Loic Venance)

PARIS: French protesters occupied three of the country’s leading theatres Wednesday as frustration grew over the months-long halt to cultural activities imposed due to the pandemic.

Theatres, cinemas, museums and other cultural spaces have been shut since France’s last full lockdown in October, and have remained closed despite most businesses reopening in December. Pressure has been building for weeks and thousands marched in cities across France last Thursday to demand they reopen with social distancing.

The Paris march ended with around 50 people forcing their way into the shuttered Odeon Theatre and refusing to leave.

Similar actions were seen on Tuesday at two other major theatres – the Colline in eastern Paris and the National Theatre of Strasbourg – and there have been similar protests at venues in Pau, Nantes and Chateauroux.

“This is a national movement,” said Karine Huet, secretary general of the National Union of Musical Artists in France, speaking to AFP from inside the Odeon Tuesday. “Regional unions have responded and it’s starting to build. They are getting organised.”

Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot said Wednesday that the occupations were “not the right way” to pressure the government.

“They are useless ... These actions are dangerous because they threaten our fragile heritage sites,” she told parliament, though she added that a government meeting was due Thursday and would lead to “significant announcements for the cultural world.”

The unions have so far been unimpressed.

“Occupy! Occupy! Occupy!” was the call on Tuesday from the culture section of the CGT union, adding that this was a direct follow-up to the “Yellow Vest” protests that rocked the country two years ago.

At the Colline Theatre, dozens of students were seen with signs reading “Opening essential” and “Bachelot, if you don’t open, we’re coming to play at your house.”

A source from the theatre said some 30 arts students had been allowed to enter the theatre by its director, the celebrated Lebanese-born theatre writer and director Wajdi Mouawad, who was in the midst of rehearsals when they arrived Tuesday.

Meanwhile, students in Strasbourg described their protest as an “act of mobilisation aimed at showing the government the gravity of our situation and to improve the rights of freelancers hurt by the health crisis,” calling for similar occupations across France.

As well as a reopening of cultural spaces, the protesters want an extension of the tax exemption for freelancers (currently in place until August 2021), and better support for other seasonal and self-employed workers, as well as urgent efforts to address the financial and mental health crises faced by students amid the pandemic.

France has one of the world’s most generous support systems for artists, providing a living wage to all sorts of people working in the arts and media, but the system has been strained by the upheaval of the pandemic, and many have fallen through the cracks.

There is also consternation over some of the government’s decisions, such as keeping large museums shut while allowing small private galleries to reopen.

 

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