When French President Emmanuel Macron proposed widespread pension reforms in December, the repercussions were felt almost immediately throughout France. In Paris, protests reverberated through the city. Metro trains halted, the Eiffel Tower was shut down, schools closed, and, at the Paris Opéra Ballet, dancers, singers, artisans and technicians went on strike.
There are 42 different pension schemes in France, many of which are tailored to the specific type of worker. The pension plan for Paris Opéra dancers dates back to the company's founding in the 1600s. It calls for retirement at age 42, after which dancers receive monthly payments equivalent to 45 to 48 percent of their top salaries, according to The New York Times.
President Macron's proposal of a universal pension plan would raise the national retirement age to 64 for all professions. Under this reform, dancers would have to continue working for an additional 22 years before receiving a pension. It would be a physical impossibility for them to continue to perform for that length of time, a fact which has been acknowledged by France's ministry of health. If enacted, these changes would likely require them to find post–performance career employment outside of the institution within which they had passed their entire adult lives, without the ease of transition provided by the current pension plan.
Eradicating this plan, in short, would be devastating for Paris Opéra's dancers, negatively impacting their health and financial stability and removing their right to a retirement commensurate with their career lifespan.
To date, the Paris Opéra Ballet has held four major protests against the proposed pension reforms. On Christmas Eve, 27 dancers took to the steps of the Palais Garnier and performed a 20-minute excerpt of Swan Lake in front of banners which read, in French, "Paris Opéra Strike" and "Culture in Danger." Paris Symphony Orchestra musicians played Tchaikovsky's famous score as hundreds of enraptured onlookers watched one of the most artistic representations of French anger over the proposed reforms.
In December, 45 shows were canceled, and the Paris Opéra reported that it has lost nearly 8 million euros in ticket sales as a result. As a result of nationwide demonstrations like these, the French government announced on January 11 that it would temporarily withdraw the plan to raise the national retirement age. Pension reform discussions will continue, and the dance world will be watching.