PARIS — Immortalized in the canvases of Edgar Degas and the novels of Victor Hugo, ballet dancers and opera singers occupy a cherished position in the French imagination. But these days, they are abandoning the stage for the street, to protest the French government’s pending retirement changes.
President Emmanuel Macron wants to overhaul France’s byzantine retirement system — a policy aim that has brought a number of his predecessors to their knees. In response, France’s trade unions have launched crippling strikes.
In the Paris region, home to roughly 12 million people, most of the metro has been shut, and few high-speed trains have been running.
Also canceled have been ballet performances and operas — both at the Opéra Garnier, the gilded wedding cake of a building with ceiling murals by Marc Chagall, and at the Opéra Bastille, the 1980s structure that more than a few critics have dismissed as the ugliest opera house in all of Europe.
During a sprawling demonstration Dec. 17, the steps of the Bastille became a stage themselves, the site of a sophisticated rendition of “La Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem, performed by striking opera singers and accompanied by brass and percussion.
The grievances of train drivers and metro conductors, some of whom are eligible to retire as early as 52, have dominated the national debate. But the dancers and singers from the Paris Opera, France’s national ballet and opera company, have been among the most committed protesters, vowing to defend a special retirement system that, in some form or another, has been in place since the late 17th century, the era of Louis XIV.
Because of the strenuous physical labor involved in their work, the opera singers and ballet dancers in France’s prestigious national company can retire at 42, at which point they receive a baseline pension of about $1,190, which they can supplement with other jobs.
Macron’s government plans to do away with this special and historic regime in the hopes of standardizing all retirement policies into a single, points-based system. Culture Minister Franck Riester told France’s BFM TV in an interview that the government was serious about including performers.
“Yes,” Riester said, “as there is only one retirement system, the universal system, the same system for everybody.”
Riester acknowledged that there might be a need to account for particularly arduous professions, but he did not say anything more specific about what that would involve.
“It’s work that’s very athletic,” said Alex Carniato, 41, a ballet dancer and union representative at the Paris Opera who’s due to retire next year. “In France, like everywhere else, we love football. And if you said that a big-time football player would still be playing at the age of 40, everyone would laugh.”
During a performance run, a typical day at work, he said, can go for as long as 11 hours, including rigorous training that includes separate sessions for abdominal exercises and weightlifting. In your 40s, Carniato said, there are many risks. “You can get seriously injured,” he said.
In pursuing its retirement overhaul, Macron’s government may put an end to a small but continuous strand of French history, as the Paris Opera’s retirement system represents a social welfare program that predates the welfare state.
The system originated in 1698. After Opera director Jean-Baptiste Lully died, King Louis XIV ordered the new directors of his royal music academy to provide pensions for Lully’s widow and children, the music master of the royal chapel, the king’s cabinetmaker and five other artists.
According to Solveig Serre, a French historian of music, the Opera’s retirement system has been recast and revised repeatedly ever since, although it was briefly interrupted during the French Revolution, with the fiercely anti-monarchical sentiments that period elicited.
The Opera’s unique pension system is also evidence of what historians see as a relationship between the French state and realms of culture, a connection that Macron’s reforms could jeopardize.
“There’s always been a link between culture and power in France — the two are inseparable,” said Vincent Giroud, a cultural historian and the author of a book on the history of French opera. “When the opera appeared in France, already there was a question about its relationship to power. It secured the benediction of royal power.”
“We don’t see the equivalent anywhere else, not quite,” he said.
The French state provides $111 million (about 100 million euros) for the Paris Opera each year, which amounts to about half of the opera’s operating budget. Although that support shows no signs of waning, opera singers and ballet dancers worry about the way their new pensions will be calculated.
Philippe Gautier, the secretary general of the arts and music branch of prominent French labor union the General Confederation of Labor, said that artists in particular, many of whom are freelance, have temporary periods of unemployment that could negatively affect their retirement pensions in the government’s new points-based system.
“We have good years and less good years, by definition,” he said.
For Carniato, the Paris Opera’s union representative, the issue at stake was not just the amount of retirement pensions for dancers and performers; it was also the question of quality in a venue widely seen in France as a public good, and even as a national treasure.
One benefit of the special retirement system, he said, has been ensuring that talented artists and musicians, especially of younger ages, are still willing to join the Opera. Pushing people to work until later ages could undermine their ability to perform at the highest level.
“It’s a question of excellence. If you want the best in the organization, if you want the dancers to have the best technique, you have to pave the way for the next generation,” Carniato said.