05.03.2016
  • France

Up All Night

  • Denis Godard

France's Nuit Debout movement is mobilizing anger at austerity outside of traditional channels.

For more than a month, France has seen an occupation of public squares. At the time of writing, nothing indicates whether the flagship occupation at Place de la République in Paris is going to be able to last, or in what form. Sparked by a draconian new labor law, it is called Nuit Debout, or “arise at night,” and has been compared to Occupy Wall Street or the indignados in Spain.

A common feature of such movements is the lack of a linear trajectory. There are a few reasons for this: first, because their advances bring them face-to-face with new challenges, new objectives, and new questions. After weeks occupation, the movement is now confronting questions of strategy regarding how to respond to repression, its relations with other struggles, the need to grow, etc.

Secondly, once the initial surprise effect has worn off, the dominant order reorganizes itself. Now power is openly seeking to retake possession of Place de la République. All of the major political parties, from the Socialist Party (PS) to the National Front (FN), are now calling for the occupation to be dispersed by the police.

But the occupation’s unpredictability is also due to more fundamental issues. First is the crisis of power in France; second is the fact that the movement developed outside traditional frameworks.

A Movement With Roots

Nuit Debout is the result of several dynamic factors: general anger, the more or less underground development of different struggles, the emergence of a general fight against the labor law, and the initiative to occupy the Place de la République on the evening of March 31, which brought the movement outside traditional frameworks.

The general anger at the system and the existing power structures has been expressed for several months in different ways. Disillusionment with the government and the dominant parties has been legible in the populace. This anger is not necessarily progressive; some express it by voting for the extreme right. But that is far from its only manifestation.

It can also be seen in the popular support of the Air France workers who tore the shirt off their director of human resources last autumn, and in the numbers who signed a petition supporting the Goodyear unionists who were sentenced to a year of imprisonment.

For the past year the struggles have multiplied — though local and isolated at workplaces, there are signs of a return to combativeness. This after years of retreat, ever since the failure of the last great social movement in September 2010. In these experiences, a sense of militancy, confidence, and the need for a global movement are gradually being restored.

During the weeks prior to the start of the movement against the labor law, two major protests took place. One of them, a demonstration for open borders at Calais received national coverage despite its small size. The other, at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, brought together several tens of thousands of protesters in support, significantly, of the occupation of the area by local residents and activists. In addition, after the paralysis caused by the attacks of November 13, there has been the start of a response against the repressive measures taken by the government.

It is in this context that the government decided to attack the workers even harder, with a law further dismantling the labor code.

Outside the Traditional Frameworks

The response to this law was launched outside of the traditional frameworks, while the union leaders were getting ready to retreat once again. First a petition for the law to be totally overturned was launched on social networks. This petition gathered more than one million signatures. Then, with the same objective, youth organizations called to make March 9 a day of general mobilization.

Given the size of the response, the unions couldn’t help but get on board, and called for a national strike on March 31. But the real motor of the movement was the youth, in the secondary schools and universities, with repeated protests and obstructions.

On February 23 a meeting was held in Paris to bring together various struggles. The gathering featured Fakir, an independent newspaper associated with the radical left, along with economists (including Frédéric Lordon) and various speakers. Around the same time, a film called Merci Patron (Thanks, Boss), supported by the same activists, was screened in various locations to capacity crowds, with debates organized after the screenings.

The Paris meeting packed the house at the Labor Exchange (the union building at the center of Paris, near Place de la République), which even had to shut its doors because the crowd was so huge. Following this success, the initiators called for a meeting for those who wanted to engage in direct actions.

While about fifty people were expected, more than two hundred showed up. At this meeting, the idea was proposed that on March 31, after the protest, “We don’t go home!” Gradually the idea spread of occupying a square at the end of the protest. This would become Nuit Debout, and the occupation of Place de la République.

Nuit Debout Begins

More than one million people protested all over France on March 31. Despite the rain, hundreds of protesters came to Place de la République. A homeless advocacy group, Droit au Logement, joined the call and decided to stay in the square for several days with their tent, at least until the protest that they were organizing the following Saturday.

The movement climaxed after Thursday, with more and more people every day. Assemblies were held with thousands of people on Saturday and Sunday. Committees were set up, along with debates where people began to speak freely. Place de la République made the front page of the newspapers.

On Sunday, the initiators decided only to call for intense periods of occupation of the square on the following Tuesday and Saturday, which were days of scheduled protests. The nights were indeed difficult to maintain, with only a few dozen diehards after public transport stopped between 1 and 2 AM. They imagined that it would be even more difficult in the middle of the week, when people were going to work.

But starting on Monday afternoon, hundreds of people came together again at the square, and more than a thousand attended an assembly that night. A march that was planned on the square that afternoon departed from République to protest a nearby conference being held by the prime minister, Manuel Valls.

Delegations arrived in protest: refugees, workers with intermittent and precarious work, and others. On Tuesday, at the end of the protest, thousands participated in the general assembly. This would be the case every evening going forward.

And starting that first week, a qualitative leap was made, which would grow during the second week. Several committees were organized around topics and projects (writing a manifesto, performing logistics, “organizing” democracy, setting up actions, a nursing station, a kitchen, etc.). The occupiers have proceeded to set up a radio, a television, even a garden.

Every morning, the police evacuate the square. Every afternoon, with incredible ingenuity, a village of tents, tarps, and wood pallets is reborn, and thousands of people participate in a popular assembly for hours. Alongside that, there are topical meetings, and booths representing alternative associations, publishing houses, and bookstores. There are assemblies in sign language for the deaf, and people’s universities organized outdoors, activities for children, poster-making workshops, legal training sessions, etc.

But above all, at the square, the movement is starting to avoid one of the possible pitfalls: being disconnected from the movement against the labor law. Contacts have been established with the sites of struggle — with youth groups, of course, but also transportation workers, postal workers, etc.

Representatives were sent from the square to worksites to mobilize for the protest against the labor law scheduled for April 9. In addition, there were multiple actions organized with the aim of bringing together struggles, including an expedition involving temporary show business workers; one in solidarity with refugees; actions outside the square like painting the walls of banks or occupying the headquarters of Société Générale; work with homeless people, and so on.

The icing on the cake: the practice of wildcat protests has been developing every evening, especially at night. Some are in front of the police stations and seek the release of protesters who were arrested after an action dismantling the barriers that were preventing refugees from setting up camp, or simply going to have a “happy hour with Valls.” The authorities wanted to keep people out of the public area by proclaiming a state of emergency, but the movement reoccupied it and has gleefully settled in.

And the movement is spreading with the organization of Nuit Debout and attempts to occupy squares in several other cities, particularly after the protest on April 9. About sixty cities are involved to varying degrees.

Relations With the Police

These successes, as well as the growing repression against the movement — and also, sometimes, fatigue — have now led Nuit Debout to several immediate questions about its future, which are also strategic questions: the question of spreading, that of its relationship with the larger movement, and that of its relationship with the police and with violence.

The state is trying several strategies to put an end to the occupations, particularly the occupation of Place de la République, which has symbolic power. The media have been increasing their attacks, calling the occupation a site of disorder, a place where violent acts are coordinated.

The police are gradually trying, every day a little harder, to retake control of the square. The protests, especially the youth protests and the wild protests, have been attacked more and more violently by the police. Two responses have been proposed within the movement.

The first response, which should be contested on principle, calls for an end to the violence and proposes, in various forms, appealing to the police to join us. This response risks disarming the movement against repression. We must not forget that during the last (regional) elections, the National Front received more than 50 percent of police and military votes, and that the number goes up to 70 percent if we only count active cops.

The police and the military are at the heart of power, and their direct violence is the practical expression of the violence of the domination of the ruling class. Without a strategy of confrontation with the police, the movement will have to give up its gains, and will have to give up the occupied squares immediately.

Furthermore, propagating the idea that there could be a possible alliance with the police would become an obstacle to the needed spread of the movement to poor neighborhoods, migrants, refugees, and undocumented people, as well as to radical trade unionists, all of whom are affected directly and very concretely by police violence.

The second response is that of direct confrontation with the police. This idea, which comes from various currents — which are often portrayed as “autonomous” — asserts the need for systematic, violent confrontation with the police and even aims to provoke it. This idea is evidence of general radicalization, particularly among the youth, and it has led more and more young people to join the protests.

It has been receiving broader and broader support, although this support is usually passive. This strategy makes the heart of the state the key target, and tends to deny all of the mediations through which the majority of society is led into a general confrontation with the ruling class and its state. Organizing a direct, systematic confrontation with the police at all sites could lead to marginalization of that current, making it much easier to repress and intimidate the rest of the movement.

However, and this is typical of the movement, the ideas and strategies that dominate it are very fluid. An anecdote illustrates this point. Last Monday, while the popular assembly was debating this kind of question, the riot police tried to prevent a logistical pickup truck from entering the square.

Quickly, several hundred people gathered to repel the cops, who had to retreat out of the square under the pressure from the number of people and their determination. Some of the people who were shouting “Everyone hates the police” and trying to repel the cops were the very same people who had been pleading a few hours beforehand to work with the police.

The Question of Growth

The second question that immediately comes up is not unrelated to the first. In order to decrease the possibilities of direct repression of the movement, it needs to spread — geographically, socially, and politically.

Spreading geographically means creating more Nuit Debout sites. Nuit Debout events are being launched in various cities. Unlike Place de la République, this time the initiative seems to come much more from organized militants, particularly members of the radical left in the broad sense. The future of these initiatives will depend on these militants’ ability to let themselves overflow, and not “channel” the expression of anger.

Spreading socially means developing Nuit Debout among the poorer demographics and in the neighborhoods, which involves adapting the topics and claims addressed as well as the sites of action. This is an ongoing concern at Place de la République in Paris. But this can only be done by breaking with all forms of paternalism.

The poor neighborhoods are not “missionary destinations” for militants — they are not apolitical zones. The connection with Nuit Debout can only be done through the driving force of the neighborhood residents themselves, and the existing networks in these neighborhoods. The question is being asked in similar terms with regard to solidarity with undocumented people and refugees.

Spreading politically means refusing any “institutionalization” of Nuit Debout and its objectives. The idea of writing a new “constitution,” initially launched by Frédéric Lordon, was quickly taken up in the assemblies. The seductive aspect of the process is the radicalism that underlies it. There is no longer anything to be gained from the existing institutional frameworks; we need to rebuild real democratic legitimacy from below.

But there are also major risks of a new formalism, forgetting that the rules of a new world cannot be written by a minority, but require the insurrection of the majority.

Thus the need for political extension to the questions brought up in the neighborhoods, questions of antiracism, internationalism, the fight against sexism, and against LGBT-phobia, etc. Thus the need for questions about the role of work, which is a vector of alienation but also potentially a collective site of struggle and social power.

Relations With the Movement

The dynamic of Nuit Debout is strictly dependent on the larger movement, and very directly on the fight against the labor law. This is its first fuel, and its essential fuel. Outside the dynamic of setting things into motion, of creating a collective experience and radicalization, the Nuit Debout phenomenon risks going in circles; getting lost in abstract debates and factional infighting; or of falling, due to lack of strength and experience, into forms of institutionalization.

The risk is there. More than ever, the future of Nuit Debout depends on its ability to stay tied to the fight against the labor law, and to contribute to fomenting a general strike.

Some people are already talking about running out of steam, and are predicting failure since the protests of April 9 were only about a fifth to half the size of those on March 31, and because the lycées and universities will be closed for summer vacation.

But these analyses themselves suffer from an absence of a dialectic between the labor movement and Nuit Debout. It is significant that it was in Paris, where Nuit Debout is most anchored, that the protest against the labor law on April 9 was not significantly weaker than that of March 31.

Nuit Debout is starting to represent an alternative leadership to that of the union leaders, who are recoiling from the prospect of a movement that is starting to get away from them and from a total confrontation with the government.

After April 9, the union leaders called for a mobilization — on April 28. The leadership of the Rail Workers’ CGT, considered to be leftist (compared to the confederated leadership), is now betraying the movement, opposing it with a different corporate agenda. The student union UNEF is now only calling for intermediate dates of mobilization, and is congratulating itself on the concessions it has obtained from the government.

The movement crystallizes an anger that is much more general than mere resistance against the attacks on the labor code; plus any attempt to limit this movement to the sole objective of overturning the law will curb its potential and its combativeness. While Nuit Debout depends on the struggle against the labor law, the latter depends on the expression of general revolt embodied in Nuit Debout.

The movement began outside the usual frameworks. Nuit Debout has considerably extended the possible scope of this “outside.” If it manages to establish deeper ties with the more combative sectors of the unions, and with the lycée and university students, it could contribute to another step forward in the struggle against the labor law, and to a strike which would then become a political strike.

An Uncertain Future

As this movement goes forward and considers these questions, the dominant trajectories of power continue to move toward reinforcing the police state, toward racism and nationalism, and toward attacks on social programs.

The monsters aren’t hiding in the shadows, they are out in the light of day. One of their forms is the extreme right. This is also why the movement has no choice but to move toward radical confrontation with the policies of the ruling class and the state.

Again, this confrontation will not progress in a linear manner. The movement will probably experience partial failures and losses. It will certainly change form more than once. It will sometimes have to unleash its energy in massive, spontaneous flows, with the risk of hitting a wall, which it will have to find a way to demolish or leap over. Sometimes it will depend on initiatives taken by a minority, but that make sense for larger numbers of people.

What is certain is that after years of apparent lifelessness, as we watched all of the reactionary tendencies of French society gain momentum, something has changed, and given rise to a new hope. The precious gems hidden under the hardened lava of previous movements have come to the surface with the newly reddened lava, glowing brighter than ever.

The times to come will be no less difficult. But we are no longer doomed to take them lying down.