As U.S. performing artists struggle to make ends meet during the pandemic, those in France are benefitting from an unemployment system that takes into account the intermittent nature of their work.



The pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to those who make their living in the arts. Cultural venues like theaters and concert halls have had to close their doors. In the U.S., some artists have had to stop creating altogether, make their livings doing something else. But in France, where access to culture is considered essential, dancers, musicians, even technicians who help put on the show have been getting government support. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Inside a small, sunlit rehearsal space in the east of Paris, a brass quintet is practicing for a performance that's been postponed yet again. But trombone player Hanno Baumfelder says he'll be OK even if the show doesn't go on.

HANNO BAUMFELDER: (Through interpreter) Once you're officially recognized as a working artist, you're ensured of having a vital minimum. It's based on how much you've worked. But even if it's not much, you'll have a fixed sum to get you through.

BEARDSLEY: Baumfelder is talking about France's special unemployment system for performing artists and technicians that takes into account the irregular nature of their work. The system, known as Intermittents du Spectacle, compensates for periods without work for those who clock at least 507 hours a year as a paid employee on artistic productions. French President Emmanuel Macron promised to maintain the current system for the duration of the pandemic, extending the time to accumulate the necessary hours by a year to August 2021. In a speech, Macron stressed the importance of culture for everyone.



BEARDSLEY: We thank all of those who've created and innovated during these difficult times, he said. Culture is absolutely essential to our lives as citizens. Although rehearsals were allowed to continue throughout France's second lockdown this past fall, culture venues remain closed to the public even though stores and other businesses are open. Protesters angry that they can shop but not perform crowded Paris' Plaza de la Bastilla last month.


BEARDSLEY: But choreographer and dancer Liz Santoro, who moved to Paris from New York nine years ago, says the status of artists in France is exceptional.

LIZ SANTORO: I'm living inside a society where culture has been given a lot of value. Coming from an American culture, it took a little while to adjust to that.

BEARDSLEY: Santoro says in New York, she had to teach pilates on the side to make ends meet.


SANTORO: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In France, she's a full-time artist who's launched a successful experimental dance company with her partner.


SANTORO: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Santoro says the support system has allowed her to devote herself entirely to her art.

SANTORO: This is something that kind of gives you a little bit of a rhythm where you feel like you can catch your breath and say, OK, I actually have the space and the time to continue to be an artist on a daily basis. It's an enormous luxury. It has changed my life.

BEARDSLEY: It's a luxury that labor organizers have fought repeatedly to defend during the cultural unemployment scheme's 84-year existence. Nicolas Dubourg is president of the SYNDEAC, the national union representing some 500 cultural organizations that receive public funding.

NICOLAS DUBOURG: (Through interpreter) We have a powerful artistic core in this country that knew how to organize and create a system of solidarity and economic support for artists. This is one reason France has a powerful voice in the cultural world.

BEARDSLEY: A voice and an example that has not gone unnoticed around the world.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIAN KAMAE'S "WAYSIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.