For over a month, swathes of workers across France have taken to the streets in response to Emmanuel Macron’s proposed welfare reforms. The wide-ranging measures include raising the full pension age from 62 to 64, introducing a universal pension system by consolidating 42 different plans with varying benefits and privileges for workers across sectors, and a move to favouring private pensions over public social security.
Six weeks of industrial action, first launched by the rank and file transport workers, have given rise to some inspiring scenes, with up to 1.8m people marching nationwide on days of action in December. One of the most outstanding moments of the strike came on 24 December when the Paris Opera Ballet performed a segment of Swan Lake on the steps of the Palais Garnier in front of banners proclaiming ‘Opera de Paris en grève – La culture en danger’ (Paris Opera on strike – Culture in danger). It was described by many as one of the greatest pickets in Paris or the trade union movement. High praise certainly, but the performance encapsulated much of what is contained in the slogan ‘everything for everyone’: culture freely accessible to all, reclaiming public spaces as sites of art, and fostering collective joy alongside solidarity.
“The idea was to create a moment of gracefulness amongst the turmoil of the strikes and also to say that art goes beyond budget spreadsheets – art with a capital A is representative of its country,” said Alexandre Carniato, Paris Opera’s pensions negotiator. The performance certainly delivered such moments but it also comprised some of the workers who stood to lose the most from the proposed reforms.
The Paris Opera’s current pension regime – among the oldest in France – dates back to the reign of Louis XIV, who founded the company 350 years ago. It allows dancers at the state-subsidised company to retire aged 42 on a full pension, while technical staff are able to do so once they reach 50. Macron’s welfare reforms would place dancers in the new universal pension system, only able to claim the baseline monthly pension of €1,067 once they hit 64 – an age far beyond which any ballet dancers could feasibly continue to work for the company. These changes would “endanger the school of dance and the company because the salaries are not very high and the pension scheme mitigates against this,” Carniato told Novara Media.
All performances scheduled to take place at Palais Garnier and Opéra Bastille since the strike was called have been cancelled, costing the Paris Opera over €14m to date. Instead, 120 members of the 154-strong troupe have taken to the streets.
The creativity of the dancers on strike is second only to their solidarity. On 23 December, the French government offered them a concession: that the reforms would only apply to dancers hired by the company after 2022, alongside a professional retraining scheme for the dancers who stop each year. A collective statement shared by many in the dance company rejected this proposal, refusing to sell out those who come after them, while seeking to uphold the history of the Paris Opera they are privileged to be a part of: “We are offered to personally escape the measures, to see them applied only to the next generations. But we are only a small link in a 350-year-old chain. This chain must extend far into the future: we cannot be the generation which will have sacrificed the following ones.”
Philippe Gautier, the general secretary of the arts and music branch of Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), explained to Novara Media that the pension reforms stand to affect all cultural workers. The current pension system for artists and performers is calculated over only the most successful and profitable 25 years of their career, while the proposed reforms will move to calculating artists’ pensions rate based on their entire career, which for many includes periods of precarious work or unemployment.
“Artists’ careers are often irregular and made of ups and downs…going into a career as a performer will become more uncertain, especially if you have a family and expenses to bear – like the cost of children’s education – after your career,” Gautier said.
He added that due to the low prominence of Franck Riester, Macron’s minister of culture, despite the mass mobilisations, it appears unlikely that the broader demands of artists and cultural workers will be met. “Unfortunately there is currently no real negotiation ongoing for the tens of thousands of performing artists.”
On 12 January it was announced that the French government had offered a compromise in the hope of bringing the strike to an end, 150,000 demonstrators having taken to the street the previous day. A letter to the unions from the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, indicated the government would withdraw the proposal to raise the pension age to 64, and hold off from decisions on financing the new system until the production of a new costing report in April.
For dancers at the Paris Opera, cultural workers in the CGT and many more across France, this minor concession will not be seen as a victory. “Age pivot, on se’n fout, on ira jusqu’au bout” (we don’t give a shit about the pension age, we’ll fight til the end) was one of the chants that rang out loudly during strikes over the weekend.
As industrial action now passes the six-week mark, despite the olive branch offered, the Paris Opera Ballet, artists and all striking workers across France know what is still at stake. The strike has been grueling for all involved, and although public support for the strike stands at 61% (only down seven points since it first began), it remains unclear how much longer it will continue. For Carniato, the need for all involved to defend both their own futures and the future of their institutions is clear: “We have high hopes of saving the international reach and the cultural heritage of France.”
Nic Murray is a researcher, trade union representative and member of the Four Day Week campaign.