Protesters occupy Paris theatres to protest against Covid-19 shutdowns

·3-min read

French protesters had occupied three of the country’s four national theatres on Wednesday to demand an end to the closure of cultural venues 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.

University students spent Monday night protesting at Pau theatre in southern France. Similar actions were seen on Tuesday at two other theatres, the Colline in eastern Paris and the National Theatre of Strasbourg.

Pressure has been building for weeks and thousands marched in cities across France last Thursday to demand a reopening of the cultural sector, albeit with allowances made for social distancing measures.

The Paris march ended with around 50 people forcing their way into the shuttered Odéon Theatre on the Left Bank and refusing to leave. Protesters set up inside the ornate lobby and on the velveted balconies of the 19th-century theater with sleeping bags and food, vowing to stay put for as long as it takes authorities to meet their demands.

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

In addition to the reopening of cultural establishments, the demonstrators are demanding the extension of a tax exemption for freelance and seasonal workers facing a precarious financial and psychological situation due to a “lost year” caused by the Covid-19 crisis.

Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot paid a surprise visit to the Odéon on Saturday and promised to pursue negotiations.

“This evening I went to @TheatreOdeon, occupied for 3d now. I understand the concerns surrounding the continuation of the lost year: They know, my goal is to continue the protection of artistic employment for as long as necessary. We will continue exchanging. #odeon,” Bachelot wrote on Twitter.

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.

At the Colline theatre in Paris, students held up signs reading "Opening essential" and “Bachelot, if you don't open, we’ll come to play at your house.”

The Colline’s playwright and director, Wajdi Mouawad, was in the middle of rehearsals when protesters arrived on Tuesday, a source from the theatre told AFP. Mouawad allowed some 30 arts students – from the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art, the Higher School of Dramatic Art and the studio theatre school of Asnières – to enter the venue.

In Strasbourg, 51 students from disciplines ranging from scenography to costumes to acting and directing joined the movement, settling in to occupy the city's national theatre “until the state presents a concrete response”.

The students hoped to “call the government’s attention to the gravity of our situation and improve the rights of temporary workers in the entertainment industry affected by the health crisis”, they said in a statement.

They called on “all the national higher schools of dramatic art in France and conservatories” to join the movement.

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 caused by 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.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)