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Last Updated: Monday, 7 July, 2003, 15:55 GMT 16:55 UK
Hope in French festival dispute
Artists stage a die-in in Avignon
Artists in Avignon staged a die-in ahead of the town's festival
The French Government has agreed to put controversial changes to arts workers' benefits on hold in the face of strikes that have closed cultural festivals.

But it is not clear whether culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon's climb-down will be enough to stop strikers scuppering the prestigious Avignon Festival, due to start on Tuesday.

Festival staff and performers are expected to decide on Monday whether to go ahead with the event, which attracts about 100,000 people per year.

Artists and behind-the-scenes professionals across the country have already caused the cancellation of a string of events during protests and walk-outs.

The dispute centres on proposals that would mean artistic workers - who often work sporadically - would put in more hours in order to claim unemployment benefits when they were out of work.

French Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon
M Aillagon has been lobbied by many workers in the arts
On Monday, M Aillagon said he would not bring in changes until 1 January 2004 - three months later than planned.

He also ordered a review in order to improve the proposals.

"It is with this condition that approval will be given," he told reporters.

His statement came after a letter signed by 1,100 film workers and actors was published in newspapers Liberation and Humanite.

"In these gloomy times where unemployment benefits are, for a number of us, the only means to keep our heads above water, the attack on them today is a real catastrophe," it said.

The Aix-en-Provence opera festival, the Paris Opera and the Comedie Francaise have already been hit by strikes.

A dance festival in Montpellier, which usually draws 30,000 fans, has been called off while events in Marseille, Pau and Rennes have also been cancelled.

On Saturday, 1,000 people with a coffin filled with musical instruments, film reels and theatre masks marched through La Rochelle, where a film festival is being held.

'Scope for abuse'

The controversial unemployment benefit is given to everyone who works in the arts - even buskers and pub comedians.

Currently, if they work 507 hours a year, they can claim for the rest.

The government says there is too much scope for abuse - but the strikers say the new rules are an attempt to ruin the arts.

Under the new plans, artists will have to work for 507 hours over 10-and-a-half months to earn eight months of benefits.

The cost of benefits has risen to 800m euros ($910m, 550m), but contributions make up only 100m euros ($115m, 70m).

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