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France's Avignon Festival dodges strike threat for now

MARSEILLE (Reuters) - Avignon Festival workers have voted to allow the opening night of the renowned arts and theater event to go ahead on Friday, a union official said, as strikes threatened summer festivals elsewhere in France.

Workers were 80 percent in favor of lifting their strike threat for the opening night in a vote on Tuesday, but left the door open for action at following performances, said Catherine Lecoq, an official with the CGT Spectacle union in the region.

France's summer festivals draw hundreds of thousands of visitors and include events such as the Avignon Festival and Aix-en-Provence's opera festival - both of which were canceled in 2003 during an earlier bout of strike action.

Performers, technicians and other casual workers in the French arts world have threatened for months to thwart the country's top summer festivals in protest at cuts to their unemployment insurance arrangements.

The Avignon Festival opens on Friday with The Prince of Homburg by German author Heinrich von Kleist played in the courtyard of the southern city's imposing Papal Palace.

Culture Minister Aurelie Filipetti urged striking workers on Monday to ensure that festivals can go ahead, stressing that talks were underway over a new unemployment insurance scheme.

France's some 100,000 casual festival workers have a special status under law when they draw unemployment benefits between jobs, creating a big drain on the Unedic unemployment fund.

Although they only represent 3.5 percent of job-seekers, their unemployment compensation is two times higher than the average and accounts for a quarter of the annual funding shortfall of four billion euros.

But festival workers - known as "intermittents" - have long refused any change to arrangements they argue are vital to supporting French culture, and say reforms agreed in March will make it impossible for many of them to eke out a living.

Under the reform worked out by the Medef employers group and some unions in March, festival-workers will see unemployment contributions rise and many will have to wait longer after the end of each temporary job before they can receive benefits.

Sporadic strikes have already taken place in Paris and the southern city of Montepellier, causing cancellations of theater and music events. Prime Minister Manuel Valls has nominated an arbitrator to try to defuse the crisis by submitting proposals in coming weeks.

(Reporting By Francois Revilla, writing by Alexandria Sage and Leigh Thomas; editing by Mark John)

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