PARIS – Striking Paris Opera musicians ushered in a new year of protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s government by playing extracts from “Carmen” and “Romeo and Juliet” to a square steeped in the history of the French Revolution.
The spirited, makeshift performance Tuesday on the front steps of the Opera Bastille served as a dramatic reminder of the rocky start to 2020 that awaits Macron, because of sustained strikes against his government’s plans to reform the French pension system.
Tuesday marked the 27th consecutive day of transport strikes. The Versailles Palace, usually a huge tourist draw, said it was closed Tuesday because of strikes, too.
Musicians who have downed instruments since open-ended strikes started Dec. 5 reveled in the chance to play for the crowd that gathered to hear them on Paris’ Place de la Bastille, once the site of an infamous prison stormed by a revolutionary mob on July 14, 1789, and then demolished.
“We’re all at the bottom of a deep hole being unable to play since Dec. 5,” said violinist Emilie Belaud.
But she added that orchestra members are determined to hold firm. The Paris Opera has had to cancel all of its scheduled ballets and operas since Dec. 5 — 63 performances in all.
“If the government persists in being stubborn and refusing to negotiate in good conditions, we’ll carry on,” Belaud vowed.
The crowd chanted for the abandonment of the retirement overhaul that would delay the eligibility age for full pensions from 62 to 64. They also cried, “We’re united! General strike!”
Macron wants to unify France’s 42 different pension plans into a single one, giving all workers the same general rights.
Paris Opera workers said that if applied to them, such changes would make their working conditions unbearable. Currently, its dancers can retire at age 42; stage technicians and chorus singers at age 57 and musicians at age 60.
Union delegate Matthias Bergmann said pushing back retirement ages would come at the expense of employees’ health and damage the world-recognized quality of Paris Opera performances.
“When they say ’62 or 64,’ we say ‘You must be mad,’ ” he said. “We have lots of technicians with busted backs because of all they’ve carried over the years.”
Negotiations between the government and unions are to resume in early January.