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Strike lowers curtain on debut night of French Avignon festival

PARIS (Reuters) - The show will not go on at the Avignon Festival on Friday, as theater workers voted for a one-day strike that hits the prestigious arts festival's opening night in a dispute over unemployment benefits.

The industrial action, one of several in recent months, is another headache for France which has to curb benefits spending to reach EU-imposed deficit reduction targets and implement a raft of economic reforms.

A union spokesman told Reuters that 71 percent of employees, from actors to stage hands, voted on Thursday night in favor of a stoppage on day one, also reserving the right to repeat their action.

Temporary arts workers have been protesting throughout France in recent months over what they say is an unfair new contract that curtails their generous unemployment benefits.

Their threats to disrupt major summer festivals that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, from Avignon to the annual opera spree in Aix-en-Provence, have prompted the government to launch talks to agree on a mutually acceptable new unemployment insurance scheme.

France's some 100,000 casual festival workers enjoy special status under law when they draw unemployment benefits between jobs, creating a disproportionate drain on the country's Unedic unemployment fund, which carries a 4 billion-euro deficit.

Although the Socialist government of Francois Hollande is trying to contain benefits spending to reach EU-imposed deficit reduction targets, the festival workers, called "intermittents", say their privileged status keeps French culture vibrant, as it allows them to support themselves between jobs.

The strike forced the cancellation of both "The Prince of Homburg," a play by 19th-century Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist, and the musical show "Coup Fatal" (Fatal Blow) featuring musicians from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Avignon Festival Director Olivier Py announced.

Also disrupting vacationers' and locals' lives is an 11-day strike by ferry workers that is bottling up summer traffic between mainland France and the sun-soaked island of Corsica off its southeastern coast.

Workers at the loss-making SNCM, which is part-owned by the French state, oppose plans to lay off 500 out of the 2,600-strong workforce and the company's refusal to buy new ships. It is the third strike this year at the SNCM.

The strike has disrupted the local economy, delaying freight and frustrating farmers, small shop owners, and hotel and restaurant workers dependent on tourism.

In an escalation of tensions on Thursday, over 100 fed-up local workers at Porto-Vecchio on the isle's southeast coast hurled stones at an SNCM boat occupied by strikers, who responded with water cannon.

On Friday, frustrated locals, including farmers, planned a protest in front of local government offices in Ajaccio and Bastia.

Last month, an extended strike by railway workers protesting over reform of the country's rail transit system aggravated commuters and the government, which took a tough stance against unions before the action fizzled out.

(Reporting by Alexandria Sage; editing by Foo Yun Chee)

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