French theatres occupied as protesters demand reopening

Paris, March 10 (AFP/APP): French protesters occupied three national theatres on Wednesday to demand an end to the ban on cultural activities imposed due to the pandemic as frustration grows with the months-long halt to performances.

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 a reopening — with social distancing — of the cultural sector.

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 theatres — the Colline in eastern Paris and the National Theatre of Strasbourg.

University students also spent Monday night in the regional theatre of Pau in southern France. Karine Huet, secretary general of the National Union of Musical Artists in France, said “this is a national movement”.

“Regional unions have responded and it’s starting to build. They are getting organised,” she told AFP from inside the Odeon on Tuesday. Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot visited the Odeon on Saturday and vowed to continue talks, but the union response has been unequivocal. “Occupy! Occupy! Occupy!” was the call on Tuesday from the culture section of the CGT union, adding that this was a direct follow-on from the “Yellow Vest” protests that rocked the country two years ago.

– ‘Opening essential’ –

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 theatre writer and director Wajdi Mouawad, who was in the middle of rehearsals when they arrived on 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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