The fate of the whole three-week Avignon theatre festival hangs in balance as performers announced they would extend a strike to protest against plans to change the unemployment benefit system.
  
Two evening shows have already been called off on the opening night of the gala.

The only hope for the event will be another vote to be held on Wednesday night.

Last minute talks did not manage to bring agreement among government, employers and unions on Tuesday.

The CGT - the biggest union in the arts - slammed a proposed reform document as a "treacherous text".
  
"We call on all professionals to continue the strike action and make the strike widespread," Jean Voirin, the secretary general of the union's arts division, said after the Paris talks ended.

However, other major unions representing the arts workers had signed a letter supporting an offer by Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon to postpone implementing the reform until next year.

Cause of complaint

No equestrian ballet this year

At stake in the stand-off is France's generous benefits system for arts workers, which operates at a massive loss and is recognised by all parties as open to widespread abuse.
  
Conceived 30 years ago to promote French cultural life, the system allows performers and technicians to work 507 hours - equivalent to less than four months at full-time - to qualify for unemployment pay during the rest of the year.
  
Under the reform plan, the estimated 100,000 temporary workers would have to log 507 hours inside a 10-month period rather than a full year, and then qualify for only eight months benefits.

Some performers unhappy
  
The official programme is outmatched by the so-called "off" festival, in which hundreds of performers put on shows in minor venues and on the street.

Many of these depend entirely on their takings at Avignon to break even and are furious at calls for a strike.
  
"It is simple. If we don't perform we die," said Yann Reuzeau, a 24-year-old actor who borrowed $17,000 to put on his show.
  
Bartabas, veteran founder of the Zingaro equestrian troupe whose opening show was cancelled on Tuesday, was also incensed - telling a press conference that though he did not like the reform plan a performer's main duty was to the public.
  
"An artist is not a clock-watching entertainment worker. An artist is consumed in the fire of his passion.... These CGT guys can sod off. We do not need them. We have never needed them," he said.
  
Based around the town's medieval Papal palace, the Avignon festival has been a highpoint of the European arts scene since 1947.
  
This year it features 40 official shows and many more "fringe" performances. Among them are a Romeo and Juliet in Lithuanian, The Death of Krishna by British director Peter Brook and readings of Iraqi poetry.