Last month, the halls of Paris’ Gare Montparnasse train station emptied when France’s rail workers went on strike. At almost the same moment, a stillness descended on Charles de Gaulle airport as the country’s air traffic controllers walked off the job.
Proving that there is no French profession immune from collective work stoppages, the country is now facing a potential epidemic of empty sketchbooks and blank canvasses as its nude models threaten to cover up, complaining of low wages and poor working conditions, while also fighting for the state to recognize their work as a serious career rather than a paying hobby or part-time gig.
A group called La Coordination des Modeles recently staged a protest complaining that most life-class nude models are treated as temp workers, with none of the perks afforded most French workers, like job security or vacation pay. And this isn’t the first time the nude models have organized to protest working conditions. La Coordination formed in 2008, after Paris’ city hall—home to the Ministry of Culture and many state-sponsored art classes—banned the tradition of le cornet (or “the paper cone”), a makeshift tip jar passed around the studio to supplement a model’s paltry wages. The ban sparked a naked demonstration outside Paris’ city hall, with dozens of models braving the cold to demand job contracts, higher pay, and more “respect” for their work from the state.
The striking models argued that they relied on the cornet to supplement their near minimum-wage income of €15 per hour (roughly $20), a meager sum for a job that they say requires both artistic and physical skill; holding a pose for three hours at a time for nine-hour days is, they argue, more physically taxing than the manual labor required of other minimum wage workers. As one of the protest organizers told The Guardian, theirs is “a craft that should be respected; not just anyone can take their clothes off and hold a pose." (Roughly 100 nude models refused to attend classes that day).
Indeed, the protesting French models are in fact following the lead of their Italian counterparts, who have previously demanded the intervention of the state in their quest for fixed contracts.
But France’s dedicated nude models—many of whom pose full-time—say they have seen no improvements since their 2008 protest and are calling on the Ministry of Culture to again intervene on their behalf. “We’re asking for a reassessment of our wages and the problem of our status,” Patricia Clark, a member of the group, told French newspaper Liberation, “We have no status, we are technically temp workers, so we’re sitting in ejection seats, and that’s unacceptable…That’s not what a temp worker is supposed to be, he’s not supposed to be working every day, six hours per day, 33 weeks per year.”
Art teachers have stood firmly behind their subjects, fretting that they might not have material to work with if models’ demands aren’t met.
But rules are rules, and the French government sees an untapped source of tax revenue. “Regarding tips, we can’t let people collect money that’s not taxed while working in a state building,” Christophe Girard, deputy Paris mayor for cultural affairs, told The Guardian.
But even a rule-enforcing bureaucrat couldn’t help but be charmed by their esprit de corps, saying, “I think this was a lovely protest in the French, gaulois spirit of resistance.”
But admiring conviction doesn’t equal government concession. And so far the city hasn’t budged. Because as much as the French respect high culture and the nude form in art, Paris won’t be crippled if the country’s naked models can’t take a paid vacation to Provence.