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Early curtains for France fest

Avignon (France), July 10 (Reuters): The final curtain fell early on France’s world-renowned Avignon arts festival today when the director, refusing to bow to the demands of striking actors and technicians, axed all of this year’s events.

The plug was also pulled on an opera festival in nearby Aix-en-Provence.

“Alas, the 57th Avignon Festival will not take place,” the visibly upset festival director Bernard Faiver d’Arcier said, explaining the pressure of the ongoing strike was too much.

“I don’t want to be bossed around by unions. And I absolutely refuse to have to resort to calling in the police.”

The strike, over plans to cut the arts industry’s generous unemployment benefit system, has already killed off another summer hit, the Francofolies music festival in western France, and disrupted filming by Hollywood star Jack Nicholson in Paris.

Actors in Avignon voted in the early hours of today to prolong their strike, dealing a death blow to an event which had been staged annually without interruption since 1947.

Confusion reigned in the ancient Provence town after two days of cancelled performances at the start of what should have been a three-week event. The mayor of Avignon, also head of the festival’s management board, had vowed she would not stand for the three-week event being cancelled outright.

The Town Hall was desperate to save the festival, which normally attracts some 700,000 people and brings in a 23 million euro ($26 million) windfall for the local economy.

“I’m sad. I’m shattered. Like everyone else who has worked so hard for this festival. But everyone supports the actors,” theatre director Jean-Michel Ribes told LCI television. Stephane Lissner, director of the 55th Aix Festival, said he too refused to stage performances under police protection, after demonstrators interrupted a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata.

“I tried to reason with them. But they weren’t listening. The fall-out is enormous, not only for the 600 artists who have been working for months,” he told France 2 television.

Avignon’s hotels and restaurants were counting the cost as festival-goers cancelled their trips and actors filed through the streets with “on strike” labels plastered over their bodies. Festival organisers began refunding the 74,000 tickets sold for the main programme. The row intensified after culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon said the government would go ahead with planned cuts to unemployment benefits despite howls of protest from actors.

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