French Freelance Artists Strike Back!

Volume CIII, No. 11November, 2003

Marc Ribot

Although it has received almost no coverage in the U.S., the largest collective action by performing artists at least since the AFM recording strike of the 1940’s is going on now in France.

Freelance musicians, artists and technicians have united with theatre, television and movie workers, including directors, actors and dancers. They are conducting a series of nationwide actions – including some strikes – that have forced the cancellation of the four largest summer festivals, including the Festival d’Avignon, one of the most important international theatre festivals. Total losses due to the actions are so far over $17 million. In French economic terms, this is the equivalent of shutting down all Broadway theatres for many months.

In addition to shutting down the major festivals, the freelance activists have held large and well-publicized demonstrations, occupied television and radio stations in over twenty cities, and used informational picket lines and other highly creative means to speak to the public about their cause.

The freelancers have won the overwhelming support of their fellow artists, and, to a large extent, the public. Seventy-two percent approve of the freelancers’ actions, according to a poll in Nouvel Observateur, although opinion was more evenly divided over the decision to close the festivals.

The reason freelancers are up in arms is because of the reduction of government support. In France, freelancers who can demonstrate that they have performed a certain minimum number of concerts become eligible for subsidies. These subsidies are not a sign of special privilege: 50 percent of subsidized freelancers still earn less than the French minimum wage.

The protesting freelancers believe their government’s proposals are part of a larger attempt to destroy the French system of social benefits.

U.S. musicians who intend to play in France deserve to know what they are walking into. Booking agents and promoters cannot be trusted to tell musicians of the dangers of cancellation or disruption. They have an economic interest in the gig going forward no matter what, and every reason to keep their fingers crossed and mouths shut. But they’re not the ones who will be travelling thousands of miles to find a gig that may be cancelled or disrupted, or in which they suddenly find themselves faced with the choice of crossing a picket line to get on stage.

This past summer, some festivals were canceled, others were permitted to stay open by the freelance activists, and some went ahead in spite of strikers’ attempts to shut them down (but even these concerts were disrupted).

French freelancers are not at the moment demanding that foreign musicians cancel performances, although some activists have indicated that cancellation would be a welcome gesture. They are asking that foreign musicians who do perform make gestures of support, such as allowing local freelance activists to speak to the audience.

This situation may change at any time, however, particularly if French music promoters attempt to vastly increase the use of foreign musicians in order to marginalize the protest or break strikes.

If the French musicians win their protests and strikes, it will be an important victory for what a committee of freelance activists called “the principle of subsidizing culture – and the refusal to consider culture as a mere marketable product.”

This principle, also known as the European cultural exception, has had effects well beyond Europe’s borders. Much of the economy of U.S. jazz and new music has derived from subsidized European festivals and venues.

If the musicians fail to force the French government to repeal the legislation, the development of a network of solidarity between U.S. and European musicians will be even more necessary. With state subsidies weakened, French musicians will find themselves facing the same corporations we do. That is, the same monopoly by Clear Channel over live performances, the same multinational corporate distributors and record companies, and so on.

If we are ever to regain our own collective strength in what is now a global economy, we will need the solidarity of French musicians as much as they now need ours.

Win or lose, the sudden emergence of the French freelance activists represents a challenge to us here in the U.S. to think beyond the limits imposed by the NLRB.

Often times, unions get stuck in worrying about who is eligible to vote in the next legally-sanctioned union election, what narrow range of desires is legitimate for this ever-shrinking group of lucky workers, and what weaker and weaker direct actions are legitimate for them to undertake.

Instead, let’s imagine a movement capable of demanding bread and roses for everyone who works – and one that’s willing to create whatever new models of organization are necessary to win them.

Any musician or artist who has been asked to tour France should send an e-mail to This is an organization of French freelance activists. Tell them you want to support their struggle to maintain benefits and ask them for advice on how you should proceed with your gig. If you can read French, check out

Marc Ribot is a member of Local 802.