Comedie-Francaise staff call off strike

Nick Awde

Employees at the Comedie-Francaise have voted overwhelmingly today to return to work after threatening an indefinite strike over parity of pay and protests that technicians and junior performers receive a far lower share of profit-related bonuses than leading actors.

Staff were 75% in favour of abandoning their action, said the theatre’s executive director Patrick Belaubre. After initial protests in December 2011, last Wednesday unions called for a full-on strike in a bid to force management of the Paris-based state theatre to the negotiating table. Now the two sides have agreed to establish formal talks for a more equitable pay scale across the different categories of company employees.

The theatre still uses a complex salary structure protected by state decree that dates back to its foundation in 1680, and this has been the cause of industrial action in previous years. Membership of the company is divided into ‘societaires’ or permanent actors, and ‘pensionnaires’ or contracted actors. Some of the strikers’ demands therefore require the approval of the Ministry of Finance, said management.

The unions’ demands focus on a revision of the bonus system, where profits are distributed each year according to highly specific terms: 76.5% paid to 37 societaires, 16.5% to 21 pensionnaires, 200 technicians and 160 administrative staff, and the remaining 7% is set aside as part of a reserve fund. The societaires are also eligible for a special pension.

This is a sensitive time for the Comedie-Française. The country’s highly subsidised theatre network is facing an uncertain future with some beginning to question the validity of funding a permanent theatre company even when housed in a national institution. The permanent actors have hit back by expressing solidarity with the unions’ demands and pointing out that they themselves would earn far more in France’s still lucrative TV and film market. The dispute has also coincided with the closing for renovation of the Salle Richelieu, the Comedie’s main theatre space, until at least 2013. This year’s seasons are planned to continue in a temporary 750-seat wooden hall constructed at a cost of €12 million in the formal gardens of the nearby Palais Royal.

Goldoni’s La Trilogie de la Villegiature was chosen as the inaugural piece to launch the new space and season, scheduled for last week, but was cancelled as a result of the strike. The play was replaced by a stock production of the company’s Le Malade Imaginaire by Moliere.

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