The Nuit Debout movement in france takes on no single form, even behind the ritual of the general assemblies in Paris and now other cities. It is plural, chaotic, fed by the multiple protests against the country’s new proposed labour law and a diversity of organisations and collectives coming from other social movements. Yet it is precisely in this absence of order that the square occupations become spaces of convergence and of proliferation (rather than of enforced collective decision making), susceptible of generating lines of resistance/creation beyond State-Capital.
The events multiply and the voices speaking also become many. We share below two texts that contribute to further understanding, the first from The Acorn (number 23 – 08/04/2016) and the second from open Democracy (08/04/2016), by Geoffrey Pleyers …
1. March 39 and counting… Nuit Debout and the new French uprising
The spirit of resistance has captured the imagination of a new generation in France, as youth-led opposition to neoliberal labour “reforms” has spiralled into full-on rejection of the whole capitalist system on the street and squares.
The situation took on a new dimension after the general strike and day of action on Thursday March 31. There was a call for people not to go home afterwards but to stay on the streets, beginning a wave of overnight “Nuit Debout” occupations that has spread from Paris across France and into the Iberian peninsular, Belgium and Germany.
The March 31 “moment” has also been symbolically extended by the renaming of the following days of the mobilisation as March 32, March 33 and so on.
On Tuesday March 36 (April 5 in the old pre-revolutionary calendar) there was another massive turn-out on the streets all over France, with increased police violence and defiant resistance.
In Paris police fired tear gas and charged the crowds of youngsters who countered with stones, glass bottles and eggs, chanting “police everywhere, justice nowhere!” and “everybody hates the police!”
Police arrested a staggering 130 schoolchildren and students on the day, leading to an evening protest outside a police station involving hundreds of people and more clashes.
It was a similar story in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles. A report on the Mars-info site said that if the initial demonstrations against the Loi Travail (labour law) had felt like the first breath of Spring, the events of March 36/April 5 showed that it had well and truly arrived.
Police charges were resisted, a motorway blocked, traffic thrown into chaos, the offices of the ruling Socialist Party redecorated. And the promise of so much more to come…
In Brittany, the main railway line was blocked in Rennes city centre, while banks, chain stores and the Socialist Party offices were targeted in Nantes.
Another hotspot was in Toulouse, where a wildcat protest and invasion of the city’s railway station was followed by an overnight Nuit Debout occupation of between 500 and 1,000 people.
When an authentic wave of revolt surges up from the collective heart of a population, there is little that can stand in its way.
Like the waters of a mighty flood, it either sweeps away everything in its path or finds a different course that takes it past all obstacles.
This is what we are seeing in France at the moment, where a rejection of the capitalist system has emerged from deep within society, most notably amongst the newest generation.
As we have previously reported in The Acorn, this phenomenon has been growing for some time now and has taken many forms.
The French state, frightened of a serious threat to its power, probably imagined it had found the solution in the wake of the November 13 terror attacks in Paris.
The draconian “state of emergency” has been combined with increased police brutality and the usual “anti-terrorist” media paranoia to try to create a climate in which revolt can have no place.
It worked to some extent with the COP21 protests in Paris, where the anticipated atmosphere of rebellion was significantly dampened.
But when the state started making noises about evicting the ZAD protest camp to make way for a new Nantes airport, the huge response of solidarity and defiance showed that the underlying rebel spirit remained intact.
And with the planned El Khomri labour laws, the “socialist” French government certainly overestimated its own power over the people.
While obedient trade unions failed to make much of a fuss about this serious attack on workers’ rights, others were outraged and the very youthful grassroots campaign emerged out of nowhere to oppose it.
The state has tried to crush it by the use of ugly police violence and general levels of repression which have been made possible by the “state of emergency”.
But even this has not worked. Indeed, the flood waters of revolt have merely swept up the tools of the state’s repression and used them as battering rams against its legitimacy.
As one statement from protesters explained: “What is being born here has little to do with the labour law. This law is just the tipping point. The one attack too many. Too arrogant, too blatant, too humiliating. The surveillance laws, the Macron law, the state of emergency, the stripping of nationality measures, the anti-terrorist laws, the penal reform project and the labour law all add up to a system. It’s one big project to bring the population to heel.
“Everyone knows that what makes a government retreat is not the number of people on the streets, but their determination. The only thing that will make a government retreat is the spectre of an uprising, the possibility of the loss of total control”.
Uncontrollability has proved a key element of the current revolt, with stewards from trade unions like the CGT being very obviously used by the authorities to try to hold back the energy of the youthful revolutionaries during protests.
One eye-witness to the March 31 protests in Marseilles described how the CGT stewards stood between the young protesters and the police with their backs to the cops, “showing clearly whose side they were on”.
As the protesters chanted “All Marseilles hates the police!”, the stewards were mocked and insulted, being called “collaborators” by the young crowd whose hatred for the system also embraces the false rebels of the comfortably conformist Left.
One recent article sees the strength of the wave of revolt as lying in the fact that it is not a “movement” that lends itself to being easily manipulated and recuperated by the status quo.
The behaviour of the union stewards and cops is a tell-tale sign that they are desperately trying to gain some kind of control over a phenomenon which is completely beyond their grasp.
The response of the French state to recent rising levels of dissent has been predictable. It has emerged that at the end of last year it placed a 5 million euro order for hundreds of thousands of rubber bullets and seems determined to try and crush opposition by force.
But resistance is spreading. There is an international call-out for a European Nuit Debout on Saturday April 9 – March 40. A new generation is at war with the system. The tyrants are running scared. Vive la révolution!
« Nuit Debout » : citizens are back in the squares in Paris
Since Thursday, 31 March, thousands of people have gathered every evening at the ‘Place de la République’ in Paris to share their disillusionments with institutional politics and to put into practice forms of direct democracy in popular assemblies and hundreds of small group discussions. Up to 80.000 people followed Sunday general assembly online on Sunday, and over 5000 on the square on various days. The “Nuit Debout” (“Standing Night”) has now become a national movement, with gatherings in 15 French cities, and even as far afield as Brussels, Barcelona and Berlin.“Nuit Debout” (“Standing Night”) has now become a national movement.
The rise of the movement in France is not casual at all. Since late February, all the ingredients have been united for the emergence of a movement similar to the Spanish ‘indignados movement’ and the ‘Occupy’ in 2011. Following a public talk on 23 February organized by the left-wing activist magazine Fakir, an informal group of a dozens of citizens imagined a square occupation after the 31 March large public demonstration against the government labour reform proposal. They successfully diffused their initiatives. Since that day, a crowd has gathered every single evening. They share their claims and projects in popular assemblies, talk and celebrate together, and organize horizontal “commissions” to organize their movement, to prepare action, communicate, sing and work on specific topic (migrants, a new economy, a new constitution…). They share their dreams of another society and call for a confluence of struggles.
Labour’s rightwing reform as detonator
A latent frustration, even when it is shared by thousands of citizens, is not enough to ignite a large mobilization. “We are very grateful to this law for waking us up from our political lethargy”A detonator is necessary, a spark that provides an opportunity for a first sequence of mobilizations. The labour rights reform package presented by the French government in February was a perfect spark. It set fire to the outrages heaped on progressive citizens by neoliberal reforms conducted by the Socialist Party government. It has fixed a common target; opened a debate in the mainstream media; eased the spread of the mobilization beyond classic activist circles and fostered the confluence between unions, students and citizens’ networks.
It has also provided a schedule of mobilizations, with weekly marches and general assemblies in universities and unions, which is indispensable at a stage when a nascent movement is not yet able to fix its own temporality and mobilization agenda. A further attack on labour rights was more than activists needed to start a vibrant movement. They never forget to thank the government for this reform proposal. As Frédéric Lordon, a radical left economist and one of the initiators of the “Nuit Debout” said during his speech at the first “Nuit Debout” on 31 March: “We are very grateful to this law for waking us up from our political lethargy”
From opposing labour reform to constructing another society
What distinguishes a social movement from any other kind of mobilization is the fact that it does not focus on a specific claim (such as labour reform) but challenges some of the core values ??of a society. Since their first call for the 9 March protest, students’ coalitions focused not only on labour rights reform. Young people interviewed during protest marches expressed their disappointment at “a government that pretends to be a left-wing government but is the total opposite”. As in the “15M”/indignados movement in Spain and the Occupy movements in 2011, university and high school students denounce the collusion between economic, political and media elites. French progressive intellectuals have already made it clear that this reform has less to do with job creations, as announced by the government, than with the growing power of the “1%”. A growing number of Socialist Party members and elected deputies have openly denounced the neoliberal excesses of President François Hollande and his government. “a government that pretends to be a left-wing government but is the total opposite”.
The lack of alternative in party politics
The absence of alternatives on the parties’ side makes the panorama very favourable to the rise of an “indignados”/Occupy-style movement. French progressives have denounced the succession of neoliberal reforms conducted by the Socialist Party government. The labour rights reform is just another episode that has included a wide set of laws proposed by the social-liberal minister of economy, Macron, or the long debate on the expulsion from French nationality of bi-national citizens associated with terror attacks. Five years ago, it was precisely this lack of a political alternative between the socialist and the popular parties that led thousands of people to occupy the Plaza del Sol in Madrid and then the squares of each and every city and town across Spain. They denounced a “democracy without choice”.
The French scenario seems even darker as internal struggles and splits are also devastating the green party and the left-wing “Front de Gauche”. The nationalist and xenophobic “Front National” frames itself as the sole alternative and keeps denouncing the Socialist Party and the right “Les Républicains” alike as fake opponents and part of the same game. This has found a large echo among voters and made it the favourite party for young voters.
In this scenario, to occupy a square and propose to change politics from below is the only option left to disappointed progressive citizens. To challenge the centrality of representative democracy and to empower citizens for local solutions is indeed the main purposes of the “Standing Nights”. Citizens on the square maintain their distance with all political parties, heavily denounce the Socialist Party’s “treason” and strongly oppose the Front National, notably by welcoming migrants and refugees into their “Standing Nights”.
Youth without a future?
Although in different proportions in the Iberian Peninsula in 2011, the economic and unemployment situation is difficult for many young people in France. The nationalist and xenophobic “Front National” frames itself as the sole alternative.
In 2012, François Hollande announced that “youth” would be a priority for his mandate. Ever since, young people have felt abandoned, little heard and abused by the government. The “precarious generation” is the first victim of labour market flexibility and the growing concentration of wealth. On 31 March, “France Stratégie” a think tank attached to the Prime Minister’s cabinet, published a report confirming their say: 23.3% of 18-24 year olds living in poverty in 2012 (compared to 17.6% in 2002), 23.4% of 15-24 are unemployed. As summarized by Le Monde: “Poverty, unemployment, living standards: the situation of young people is degraded compared to other age groups”.
Even more than their current living conditions, young people are outraged by the feeling of being “deprived of their future”. They express it on the Place de la République as in social networks: “The government wants us to believe we have no choice but a precarious future. And that is what we reject”. It resonates as a clear echo to the situation in Spain and Portugal in 2011, where the networks called “Youth without future” were among the main initiators and protagonists of the 2011 mobilizations. Five years later, in France, the claim of young people to design their future is once again at stake. As Florence summarized in a tweet, “We need to think tomorrow’s society with humanism, freedom, equality, fraternity”. In the French “Standing Nights” as in the “post-2011 movements”, a generation of young citizens is constructing itself as individuals, as a generation and as citizens who claim for more democracy and a fairer world.
Mobilization infrastructures: networks and student calendar
If outrage and the desire for a different world are at the core of social movements, the beginning of a mobilization also depends on “infrastructures” that facilitate its emergence and its duration. On this side, too, all signs are green for a lively spring in France.
The French Government could not have picked a better time to diffuse its proposal for a labour rights reform package. Late February/early March is the best period to start any student mobilization. At the beginning of the second term, personal and activist networks are well built and the final exams are still remoted, leaving time and energy for activism and protest. The Paris May 68 as well as the large 2006 student demonstrations in France started around this period, so did the movement of the indignados in Spain five years later. The Paris May 68 as well as the large 2006 student demonstrations in France started around this period, so did the movement of the indignados in Spain five years later.
The emergence of a movement is never as spontaneous as it appears in mainstream media. The mobilization around the United Nations negotiation on climate, small mobilizations against the state of emergency and police violence in France and the various ecological struggles around the country have enabled activists to build connections and accumulate experience.
The group of activists that proposed and prepared the gathering on the Place de la République after the March 31 protest played a key role as “mobilization entrepreneurs” providing the space in which this movement can flourish. The civil society organization, “Right to housing” (“Droit Au Logement”) had already received authorization to set up a couple of tents on that square to protest against evictions and was able to provide logistical support and some useful advice to less experienced young activists on the square.
A different movement?
So is the “Standing Night” just a comeback of the indignados/Occupy movement? The “Standing Night” borrows the codes, much of the world view and the will for a participatory democracy. The 2016 movement must however also find its own way, both because the political context is different from five years ago, and because they must take into account the way their predecessors developed during and after the square occupations.
The shared enthusiasm for democratic movements of early 2010 seems distant. The climate is now much more solemn, marked by terror, the state of emergency, and the success of far-right parties and values as well as policies with far-right values. The Place de la République hosts the citizens’ memorial terror attacks on 13 November and is just a few hundred meters from the Bataclan and most of the bars hit on that evening.
In France and in Europe, the war against terrorism is at the top of political agendas. The French far right “Front National” seduces over 25% of the voters and attracts a number of young people. With the state of emergency, repression is not limited to potential terrorists. Green activists have been house arrested in December. Muslims and young people are regularly beaten up by the French police and recent student demonstrations have been violently repressed. The “Nuit Debout” is a response to this climate. Citizens proclaim their support for an open Europe, support refugees’ and migrants’ demands, and welcome them on the square.
On the other hand, as the square occupation by the Spanish indignados and the Occupy movements is in the DNA of the French “Standing Nights”, so are the outcomes and limitations of the previous movements. The project of the “Standing Nights ” is based on that heritage, but must also reinvent the movement and its practices to try escaping some of the limits of its predecessors.
Since 2011, the demands of horizontality and the desire to create a participatory democracy outside the paths of institutional politics has confronted actors, movements, and squares with the limits of weakly structured movements and with outcomes that are not as clear as many activists would like. Is it possible to “change the world without taking power” implanting prefigurative activism, horizontality and citizens’ initiatives, or do progressive citizens need to “occupy the state” and enter the electoral game to foster a more democratic society?
In 2011, the Spanish indignados and the “Occupy” activists clearly rejected it. Since then, several actors of the 2011 movements have decided to cross the bridge and join the institutional political arena. Some have fostered the successes of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and the vibrant campaign of Bernie Sanders in the US. In Spain, the new party Podemos shows that popular movements can open up political opportunity, but also that by passing from outrage to party politics, Pablo Iglesias and his colleagues have betrayed some of its founding values, such as the rejection of leaders, the primacy of citizen dynamics and the refusal to accept many of the rules of party politics and of the electoral ‘game’.
As for the international context, after some years marked by the hopes of more democracy, social justice and dignity, relying in particular on the culture and practices of horizontal alter-activist movements, these movements face today the naked power of the political and economic elites. In several countries such as Turkey and Egypt, the actors of the squares ‘revolutions’ are now the victims of violent repression.
The movement “Nuit Debout” that started in Paris on 31 March benefits greatly from the experience of the movements and squares occupations that have shaken the world since 2011. It has however to invent its own way, building on the success and limits of its predecessors. Without anticipating the future outcome of such a mobilization, to gather thousands of citizens of different generations to reassert that “another world is possible”, to welcome migrants and refugees and to work together on alternative projects based on citizens’ democracy, more social justice and dignity, is already a considerable success in a context strongly marked by social regression and the depressing context of the state of emergency.