From our special correspondent in Cannes – A relentless downpour threw a wet blanket on the world’s premier film festival on Friday, but it did not stop Cannes’s “essential workers” from staging a protest outside the Riviera town’s most emblematic palace hotel – a prelude to a larger rally scheduled on Sunday.
France has been roiled by months of mass protests – the biggest in several decades – against a deeply unpopular pension overhaul that President Emmanuel Macron’s government rammed through parliament without a vote.
The protests, some of them violent, have prompted the local authorities in Cannes to order a ban on demonstrations within a broad perimeter around the Palais des Festivals and the town’s palm tree-lined boulevard, the Croisette.
Opponents of the reform, however, have warned that they won’t sit quietly during the festival – a prime showcase for France and one of the world’s most publicised events, luring visitors and media organisations from all corners of the world.
“Cannes isn’t just about glitter and bling. It’s about workers too, people without whom the festival wouldn’t even take place,” said Céline Petit, a local representative of the CGT trade union, which is spearheading the resistance against a reform Macron has already signed into law.
Having failed to overturn the protest ban in the courts, the CGT found a way around it, staging a small rally of hospitality workers on private grounds, just outside the front porch of Cannes’ best-known palace hotel, whose guests this year include the film icon and festival darling Martin Scorsese.
The use of a private hotel meant the rally was technically allowed, on condition that the protesters – a mix of union representatives and workers from the hotel and catering industries – numbered no more than a few dozen.
Braving the rain, they unfurled a large banner that read, “No to pension reform”. The glitzy setting, with the entrance to the recently refurbished Carlton in the background, made up for the lack of numbers.
“Hotel staff don’t normally have a voice,” said Ange Romiti, a CGT member representing staff at the Carlton hotel. “This is our chance to get our message across when the eyes of the world are on Cannes.”
No porters, no festival
Macron’s flagship pension overhaul raises the country’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and stiffens requirements for a full pension, a move the government says is required to balance the books amid shifting demographics.
Unions, however, say the changes are profoundly unfair, primarily affecting women with discontinuous careers and low-skilled workers who start their careers early and have physically draining jobs – the very “essential workers” who were feted during the Covid pandemic.
Without the Carlton’s 680 staff, and the thousands more employed in the Riviera town’s crucial hospitality sector, “absolutely nothing would happen in Cannes”, said Romiti. “But cleaners, porters, waiters, cooks – they’re all exhausting jobs, it’s impossible to keep going until 64,” he added.
The government has also faced fierce criticism over the timing of its reform, coming on the heels of the pandemic and amid a crippling inflation crisis.
“It certainly wasn’t an opportune move, let alone a classy one,” said Romiti. “Neither was it democratic,” he added, referring to the government’s use of special executive powers to get around parliament, despite an overwhelming majority of the French rejecting the reform.
>> Read more: ‘Democracy at stake’: French protesters vent fury at Macron over pension push
“Our democracy has taken a hit,” said the union representative. “It’s important that people keep up the fight and remind the government that this is not okay.”
The protesters gathered outside the Carlton said the government’s controversial pension push threatened to exacerbate structural problems in an industry that is already grappling with severe shortages.
“Young people are abandoning these professions,” said Romiti, pointing to hiring difficulties. “They’ll be even less inclined to do them if it means lifting mattresses and carrying heavy trays at 64.”
The film industry itself faces a haemorrhage of jobs, said Mathilde, a festival worker who showed up at the Carlton protest in solidarity with hospitality staff. She is a member of the Collectif des précaires des festivals de cinema, which has launched a campaign to raise awareness of growing job insecurity in the industry.
Mathilde said recent government cuts to unemployment benefits had made life impossible for the seasonal workers on whom film festivals depend, while the latest pension overhaul will make it harder for workers with interrupted careers to qualify for a pension.
“It’s just not worth it to work in festivals any more, and festivals can’t cope without us,” she said.
It’s a message the CGT also put forward ahead of the festival as it threatened to cut power during the 12-day film extravaganza, as well as at Roland-Garros and the Formula One GP in Monaco, in protest at the pension reform. The union hasn’t pulled the plug on Cannes, so far, but the threat remains.
Often described as a celebrity bubble removed from the social context around it, the Cannes Film Festival has a long and rich history of social and political activism – from its pre-war roots in the left-wing Front Populaire to the May 1968 unrest that saw the likes of Jean-Luc Godard pull the curtain (literally) on the festival.
A founding member of the festival, the CGT still has a seat on the administrative board. It has planned another, larger protest on Sunday, this time further away from the Croisette. It will also host a screening of the 1988 documentary “Amor, Mujeres y Flores” (Love, Women and Flowers), about the effects of pesticides on women working in Colombian plantations.
This year’s festival is unspooling against the backdrop of labour unrest on both sides of the Atlantic, with US screenwriters staging a rare walkout.
The Writers Guild of America is seeking better pay, new contracts for the streaming era and safeguards against the use of Artificial Intelligence in writing scripts – a demand Hollywood studios have rejected.
The walkout has been a recurrent topic of discussion during the numerous press conferences in Cannes, with jury members throwing their weight behind the strike on the opening day of the festival.
“My wife is currently picketing with my 6-month-old, strapped to her chest,” said juror Paul Dano. “I will be there on the picket line when I get back home.”
On Thursday, Ethan Hawke wore a shirt that read “Pencils Down” during the presser that followed the screening of Pedro Almodovar’s 31-minute queer Western “Strange Way of Life”, which garnered rave reviews.
The next day, veteran actor and activist Sean Penn described the studios’ stance on AI as “a human obscenity” during a press conference for his new film, “Black Flies”, a gritty drama about New York paramedics directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire.
“The first thing we should do in these conversations is change the Producers Guild and title them how they behave, which is the Bankers Guild,” he said. “It’s difficult for so many writers and so many people industry-wide to not be able to work at this time. I guess it’s going to soul-search itself and see what side toughs it out.”
This story originally appeared on France24