Intermittent support: how cuts are hitting artists in France

French arts workers are battling cuts to a unique benefits scheme. Freddie Mason reports

October 1, 2014
4 min read

Katharina Crespo, an actor living in Abberville, northern France, paints a vivid picture of how difficult a career in acting is. Performances are often the result of many hours of unpaid rehearsals. Crespo is constantly working at her craft. She says that a huge amount of ‘invisible labour’ is inherent in being an actor; she only survives because she is an intermittent.

Intermittent refers to people who receive l’intermittence du spectacle – a scheme that has been in place in France since 1936. It acknowledges that working in the arts can be highly precarious and subject to long fallow periods. So if artists are able to find a certain amount of paid work a year – 507 hours over 10 months, roughly 13 hours a week – the French state will match what they earn and pay them during periods of unemployment. According to the government, the scheme costs about €1 billion a year; unions say the real cost is less than half that.

Once hailed by ex-president Jacques Chirac as part of France’s tradition of l’exception culturelle, intermittence has been under threat since 2003 when the first cuts were made to the scheme. In the summer of that year, the world-renowned Avignon festival was shut down by strikes. This year, another wave of cuts proposed in June have been met with widespread condemnation from unions, activists and intermittents.

On the day the cuts were proposed, theatre technicians staged an occupation and 10,000 arts industry workers took to the streets of Paris in protest. The first day of the Rio Loco festival in Toulouse was cancelled and a flamenco festival in Paris called off. CGT Spectacle, the union with most intermittent members, organised strikes and protests throughout the duration of the Avignon theatre festival, while agreeing to keep the event running. The movement against the cuts has pledged to stay actif toute l’annee (active all year).

I met with Basil Theoleyre, an accordionist and trumpeter from the Orchestre National de Barbès in Paris, who manages to live with some stability as an intermittent. For Theoleyre, the cuts to intermittence are part of a ‘failure of the French political imagination’ to look beyond the economics of Britain and the US.

Opponents of intermittence argue that the scheme is open to abuses by its recipients. But most of this is petty: ‘faking’ a couple of hours of employment to meet the scheme’s quota. The gross abuses are committed by big employers such as the private TV channel TF1. Intermittence ensures the existence of a large skilled workforce that the channel doesn’t have to provide with any job security.

Cutting intermittence doesn’t deal with this exploitation – and it hurts smaller, independent outfits. Malcolm Theoleyre, an activist writing his PhD on colonialism and pop music at the Sciences Po university in Paris, says that grand Parisian theatres will continue to thrive and find actors and technicians if intermittence is phased out. It is the young, small, experimental theatre practitioners that will suffer as a result of the cuts. He also predicts that the ‘penetration of performing arts into regional areas of France’ will decline due to the measures, leading to a regressive ‘concentration of cultural capital in Paris’.

Theoleyre further argues that state support has enabled French cinema to remain dynamic. The alternative is an entirely privatised cinema industry like Hollywood – not exactly a risk‑taker when it comes to artistic innovation. He argues that when artists are less financially secure, they become more anxious to make safe, profitable art, and experimentation is stifled as projects stagnate and homogenise.

Not so long ago states laboured to protect cultural activity that didn’t necessarily bring profit. Yet now systemic, state-run forms of support for cultural phenomena seem to have become entirely alien to the charmless gloom of economic austerity.