Culture workers have seized France’s top administrative court to contest the government’s decision to keep the Covid curtain down on theatres and cinemas until at least 7 January. They consider they’re every bit as essential as shops and churches.
This story first featured in the Spotlight on France podcast.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex recently announced that all shops including those offering non essential goods and services such as hairdressers and bookshops could reopen as part of the easing of lockdown on 15 December. But enclosed cultural venues like theatres, cinemas and museums were deemed too risky for the spread of Covid and were not part of the mix.
It sparked a lot of soul-searching over what is essential and non-essential in life in France: the first country to open a culture ministry, in 1959, and which still counts more than 16,000 libraries, 440 performance spaces, 2,000 cinemas, 1,200 museums nationwide.
“The difficulty is that when you say culture and theatre are not essential you think that YOU are not essential,” said actress Anaël Guez.
“Our job is to give joy, to tell stories, so if I can’t do that, if I’m not essential, what is the meaning of my life?”
Guez is in her mid-30s and had been very busy touring with her theatre company Paname Pilotis before the first lockdown in March. They had a short reprise with seven performances during the summer before the second lockdown in October stopped them in their tracks once more. 50 shows have been postponed and they have no idea when, if ever, they will be rescheduled.
“We’re frozen with this situation. I spend my time just crossing off bookings in my schedule,” she sighed, staring at a lap top in her Paris flat.
'No country does more'
On 15 December Guez joined thousands of people working in the French theatre and cinema industries to protest against the government’s decision not to reopen theatres and cinemas as hoped.
“Of course I was expecting theatres to reopen, Christmas is such a good time for theatre," she said. "They’re treating us like idiots.”
To drive home the point, French singer-songwriter and slam poet Grand Corps Malade released the song Pas Essentiel.
Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot said she was heartbroken over developments but maintained that if they reopened now, while Covid infections are still high, the risk would be having to close again after Christmas which would "deal a fatal blow" to the industry.
The government meanwhile has announced a €35 million additional support package along with assurances that France’s 276,000 freelance entertainment workers known as intermittants will continue to benefit from special stipends which cover periods of unemployment between short term contracts.
“No country does more for its artists than France” Bachelot told France Inter radio on 17 December.
Disdain for the cultural sector
But culture sector workers claim that by giving them just five days warning that they wouldn't reopen as hoped shows the government's ignorance of how the sector works.
"Once again the government has shown its deep misunderstanding, even disdain, for the cultural and artistic sectors. Theatres and cinemas don't open and close like shops," actress and director Maïwenn wrote on instagram.
At the Théâtre de l’Atelier in Montmartre, northern Paris, cast and staff chose to protest through art and organised an outdoor happening to mark the day on 15 December when they were due to re-open the Chekhov play Crise de nerfs.
“I’m really angry because our show took a very long time to prepare,” said the theatre's director Marc Lesage.
“The government has no vision; it’s impossible to work with stop and go because we have to sell tickets for our shows and do publicity. We have nothing now.”
He insisted the profession had shown “a great sense of responsibility” in ensuring all the necessary health measures were respected to the letter in order to protect spectators.
“All the studies show that no clusters – anywhere in the world – have been identified in theatres," he stated. "So why do we have to close them?”.
While Lesage recognised they "are lucky in France" to have considerable financial state support, money is not their only concern.
“Culture is the basis of our society, it’s necessary for all the people. But today the market is more essential than culture,” he regretted.
One of the major bones of contention around what is essential and non essential concerns the church. France is a secular society and the state does not, in theory, intervene in religious matters and yet churches, mosques and synagogues have been allowed to reopen with up to 30 worshippers at a time.
“We don’t understand why churches and other religious buildings are open, why supermarkets are open and yet we’re closed,” said actor Jacques Weber, famous for his portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac.
"To say that theatre is somehow useless is utter c**p," he continued in a passionate defence of the arts at the Théâtre de l'Atelier.
The reopening of services inside religious buildings came after Catholic worshippers called on the Conseil d’Etat which ruled that the government had failed to respect the constitutional right to freedom of worship.
Cultural workers are now hoping that same Conseil d’Etat will allow them to resume their form of “secular communion”.
"Everyone sees religious and cultural venues are being treated differently,” lawyers Vincent Brengarth and William Bourdan told Le Monde daily. “Since theatres are seriously under threat, the [court’s] decision must re-establish equality before the law and allow the theatre world to limit the catastrophic consequences of the crisis.”
The lawyers argue the ongoing closure of cultural venues is a breach of four fundamental freedoms: the right to free enterprise, freedom of association, artistic freedom and the principle of equality with other businesses.
The court is expected to render its decision on Wednesday 23 December.
Whatever the decision, and however long it takes to get shows back up and running, actress Anaël Guez has no plans to abandon the theatre and has grown accustomed to living "one day at a time" under lockdown.
"I'll continue, because what is the world without culture?"
This interview was produced for the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen here.