Curtains for France's Summer Festivals


By Jennifer Picard and Christina Passariello When Jack Nicholson picks up a bullhorn, it's usually to shout at his fellow actors when filming a movie. But on July 8, he used it for a different purpose: Negotiating with protesters. According to police, around 650 French arts workers stormed the central Paris set of an as-yet-untitled romantic comedy Nicholson was shooting with Diane Keaton and Keanu Reeves.

Despite Nicholson's pleas, demonstrators refused to move away from the Seine River bridge where the shoot was taking place, forcing the production crew to pack it in for the night. The artists' protests against the French government's plans to change their unemployment-benefit system interrupted filming halfway through the 12-day shoot, at a cost that may not be covered by movie insurance.

ANOTHER BLOW. It's far from an isolated case in this summer of discontent for French art performers and backstage staff. Their waves of protests have killed off a significant portion of France's summer arts programming. The cancellations are coming at a huge cost to French tourism, which is already being battered by a significant fall-off in American visitors because of the weaker dollar, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and France's opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

July and August in France are renowned for the prestigious festivals that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to cities, towns, and villages across the country. This year, even the most famous festivals have been forced to bring down the curtain and swallow their losses from ticket sales and canceled tourism.

By mid-July, the organizers of festivals such as Aix-en-Provence (opera), Avignon (theatre), La Rochelle (pop music), Montpellier (dance), Marseille (dance, music, theater, and cinema), and Tours (street arts) called off their events after weeks of strikes. So far, with the festival season only half over, 15% of the 650 summer performances held throughout France have been halted, putting many local economies in jeopardy.

PRICE-CUTTING GAMBITS. Avignon is the most famous of France's festivals, drawing 700,000 people annually and 22 million euros ($25.2 million) in revenues for the local economy. When this year's three-week-long festival had to be canceled on what was to have been the second day of performances after protestors staged sit-ins, local hotels and restaurants took a major hit.

"In July, 80% of our hotel clients come for the festival. Within three weeks, we usually make a quarter of our total sales for the year," says Franck Gomez, president of the Hotel Industry Assn. in the Vaucluse, the region in which Avignon is located. Now the tourism industry is taking measures to salvage what it can of the profitable summer months. "Hotel and restaurant owners are considering slashing prices to attract tourists," says Gomez.

The same goes for Aix-en-Provence, where the festival injects $11.4 million into the local economy every summer. La Rochelle was one of the strike's first casualties -- its pop-music concerts, "Les Francofolies," usually bring in a $15.8 million windfall over six days.

THE UNCERTAINTY FACTOR. Luckily for Avignon, Aix, and La Rochelle, these cities boast other attractions besides the festivals. They draw tourists year-round, even if their arts events are the season's cash cow. But a town such as Carhaix is on the map thanks only to its festival, "Les Vieilles Charrues", which can bring in 60% of the year's tourists within three days -- "162,000 festival-goers for a local population of 8,000 inhabitants," according to Yves Colin, one of the festival's organizers.

Carhaix's festival was held anyway, despite the protests, preventing the small town from plunging into a budget crisis. But the last-minute decision to go ahead came too late for festival-goers who had already canceled because of the uncertainty.

The situation for the rest of the summer remains much the same for towns across France. Festival directors from Brittany to the Cote d'Azur can't say for sure if their events will occur and often end up pulling the plug on the eve of opening night.

"STATE OF INSOLVENCY." This year's disruptions have thrown the future of the festivals into question. Since most performances are at least partly financed by local partners, festival organizers are afraid that the sponsors will be reluctant to take part in such a fragile enterprise next year. The Avignon festival's earnings shortfall is considerable: It owes its spectators nearly $2.7 million in ticket refunds. In Aix-en-Provence, festival director Stephane Lissner estimates that his event's losses will approach $8 million -- an amount equal to nearly half its $17.2 million annual budget. He told the magazine L'Express that "the festival is now a state of insolvency."

The last resort for both is state and regional support. The government has already awarded a $5.7 million subsidy to the opera festival of Aix-en-Provence to guarantee next year's edition. While the disaster's scope hasn't been completely evaluated, it seems certain that at least some other festivals will need a bailout before the show can go on. Picard and Passariello are editorial assistants in BusinessWeek's Paris bureau


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