Paris Opera ballet dancers hang up shoes in pension-reform protest

Paris (AFP) –


When tens of thousands of French workers downed tools and took to the streets in protest against pension reform last Thursday, in their midst was a seemingly unlikely group of aggrieved picketers: ballet dancers from the Paris Opera.

More accustomed to gliding across stages to orchestral melodies than pounding the pavement to the rhythm of angry chants, the dancers doffed their pointe shoes to defend a special retirement regime they have enjoyed since 1689 under the reign of the Opera's founder, the Sun King Louis XIV.

Though by no means their first strike, "in 20 years with this company, this is the first time that I saw dancers in the streets," said Alexandre Carniato, a dancer and troupe representative on pension matters.

Of 154 dancers employed at the prestigious opera house, "we were 120 who demonstrated, from the corps de ballet to the principals," he told AFP.

The arts have been a major casualty of the strike, which caused the cancellation of several top ballet, opera, and theatre shows in Paris, disappointing tourists and locals who need to book long in advance for the pricey seats.

The Opera said 11 shows have been cancelled at both its historic Garnier stage and the modern Bastille venue since the strike started last Thursday, representing a loss of 1.8 million euros ($2 million) in ticket revenues.

The performances cancelled have included the great classical ballet "Raymonda", the modern ballet "Le Parc" and a hugely ambitious new production of Borodin's opera "Prince Igor".

And it is far from the only French cultural institution to take a hit. The Comedie-Francaise, France's most prestigious theatre -- which also has a special pension regime -- cancelled performances as some of its staff went on strike.

- Hired at 16 -

Carniato has just a year left before the obligatory retirement age of 42 for Paris Opera dancers brings the curtain down on his career.

The limit was set by taking into account the physical arduousness of the job, the high injury risk, and the assumption that most dancers cannot not continue performing at their best beyond a certain age.

"The Paris Opera Ballet is the only employer in France to train its future employees from the age of eight," tweeted dancer Adrien Couvez, adding the rate of work accidents in the sector "are among the highest in France."

From the moment a dancer "is hired by the Opera at 16, we have work days that last from 9:00 am to 11.30 pm... The older one gets, the more one worries about not being able to keep it up," said Carniato.

"At 40, some already have titanium (replacement) hips."

Carniato said he would earn a pension of 1,067 euros ($1,180) per month from next year, which would augment what he expects to be a salary of about 1,200 if he manages to find work as a school teacher.

"The biggest concern is finding a new job at the age of 42," he said.

These, the dancers say, are among the reasons for the special pension provision they now fear will be taken away.

But they are defending a regime that is envied by counterparts dancing for highly regarded ballet companies in cities like Bordeaux or Toulouse.

"The dancers of the Paris Opera are the only ones in France with this advantageous retirement age of 42 years," tweeted Marc Ribaud, ballet director at the Opera of Nice in southern France.

"All the other dancers have mainly part-time jobs with nothing at the end of it!"

- Musicians on strike too -

The government's reform plan seeks to unify 42 separate pension schemes into a single points-based system for all workers, which it says will be fairer, with fewer exceptions for certain sectors -- including rail workers who retire earlier than most.

The French state covers half of the Paris Opera's pension fund, about 14 million euros per year.

On top of its dancers, several other Opera workers are also on strike, including musicians and machine operators.

French Culture Minister Franck Riester confirmed to BFMTV that the Paris Opera's special regime would disappear.

"But does this mean that we will not take into account the realities of... certain jobs? Of course not," he said, without giving details.