In late February the Michael Moore-style documentary “Merci Patron!” debuted in a few small cinemas in France. The sleeper hit caught a representative of Bernard Arnault, the CEO of the luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) forking over 35 thousand euros in hush money to a couple who were threatening to go public with their layoff from a garment factory. Produced by the French newsmagazine Fakir, “Merci Patron!” embarrassed Arnault, a billionaire 34 times over and LVMH, which had shifted the couple’s jobs in 2007 from France to a low-wage factory in Eastern Europe. After having helped the couple out of dire straits, Fakir unfortunately did not seize the historic opportunity to call on all laid-off people to demand the same treatment from their former employers.
The film struck a chord with the public just as parliament took up a bill to drastically loosen France’s labor laws. Unions and much of the population has expressed outrage. France is still under a state of emergency introduced after the terrorist attacks last November, but major strikes, occupations, marches and other actions have been taking place since the labor bill was introduced. If adopted, the law would allow individual contracts between employers and employees that need not respect the current national labor regulations negotiated by the unions, thus making it easier for contracts to be terminated, workhours to be increased, overtime pay reduced, severance packages cut, and so on. Many argue that the current strict labor laws help prevent France from plummeting into a Spanish-style economic crisis.
Taking the protests a step further, Fakir joined with intellectuals and activists to try to create a “convergence of struggles.” With a major demonstration planned for March 31, they suggested that instead of going home afterward, everyone assemble at the Place de la République in Paris, a historic site of political dissent. Authorization was requested from the local police precinct and the event was allowed to take place from 5:00 to midnight, involving speeches and the screening of “Merci Patron!”. The crowd dispersed in the early hours.
Unexpectedly, the following night the the crowds came back on their own to the square, improvising speeches and a general assembly. For almost a month they’ve returned every evening and nighttime assemblies have been popping up in other cities in France and Europe.
The movement, following on Spain’s Indignados and Occupy Wall Street, is called Nuit Debout, “Arise Night” or “Standing-up Night.” In French political culture “debout” has significant resonance as it’s the first word in the “Internationale” (“Arise…!”). For example groups that have been formed like “Radio Debout” and “Feministes Debout” evoke a sense of resistance among the French.
With broad participation, self-organization, and political action Nuit Debout has the trappings of a movement. It is certainly providing an important public forum for political debate. But its diffuse character makes it feel like trying to build something solid out of water and sand.
Like the Occupy Wall Street encampments, Nuit Debout’s central gathering point acts as an incubator for protests. Frequently actions are proposed by organizations, individuals or the “commissions” that are the cellular life of the movement. Recent actions include protesting the expulsion of a squat and a migrants’ camp, a hundred people leafletting in front of a factory to decry the sacking of a worker who promoted “Merci Patron!”, blocking the entrance to McDonald’s and Subway restaurants, demonstrating in front of a police station against arrests, and more than 500 people descending on the train station to discuss the labor bill with rail workers. Like during Occupy, theater and festivity mix with politics. One of the largest actions involved more than a thousand people spontaneously marching to the residence of Prime Minister Manuel Valls chanting “apéro chez Valls!”—“Let’s have a drink at Valls’ house!”—leaving a wake of vandalized banks, ATMs and ad signage before being dispersed by the police. Riot cops who constantly encircle Republic Square quash most attempts to break out. Setting police and other cars on fire, vandalizing banks and decorating walls with political graffiti take place regularly on the fringes of the Nuit Debout. Dozens have been arrested and some are facing jail time of a month or more. Around 1000 arrests have taken place during protest events in France since the labor bill was proposed.
But Nuit Debout is not an occupation; it is a permitted nightly gathering. Recognized activist associations request authorization daily, such as the housing-rights group “Droit Au Logement,” and participants are allowed to congregate in the square from 5:00 to midnight. Usually the gathering continues but dwindles to a few stragglers and campers by dawn who are routed from the square by riot cops. Some nights the police move in not long after midnight, destroying makeshift tents and tear-gassing participants. Some evictions turn particularly violent, especially on weekends or after protest marches against the labor bill, such as the nights of April 28 and May 1st. As the sun rises the square is spiffed up for tourists and passersby, the only sign of the protests being the steady accumulation of graffiti on the concrete. By the early afternoon the cycle begins anew. People begin to sit on the ground in circles forming commissions on specific issues that are open to anyone—except for the commission on feminism limited to those who identify as women. The clusters gradually expand, the moderators asking people on the edges to sit down so that everyone can see.
Commissions include Ecology, Prisons, Hospital working conditions, Migration, Feminism, Political Economy, Undocumented Immigrants, French Imperialism in Africa, Anti-specism, Poetry, LGBT+, Drugs and Liberty, Rewriting the Constitution, Education, General Strike, Citizens’ Juries, Discrimination and the Disabled, Museums, Convergence of Struggles, Islamophobia and Racism, Street Gardens, Palestine, Housing, Drawing, Vocabulary and Reappropriation of Language, Minimum Income, Science, People’s Universities, Social and Solidarity-Based Businesses, Perspective and Program, Monetary Creation and Democracy, Suburbs, Project in Common (“discussing the guiding values and general goals of the movement”), Free Bookstores, and Anti-advertising. Others spring up regularly.
There are also “structural commissions” such as Welcome and Coordination, Events, Democracy and General Assembly, Camping (not “Occupation”), Media Center, Logistics, Infirmary, Free Restaurant, Live Radio and TV (Radio Debout and TV Debout), International Relations, Action (“organizing the actions of the movement”), Digital/Hacking, Communications, Banners, and Security, which is termed “Serenity.”
Around 5:30 PM, ropes are slung between trees and poles, and tarps thrown over to create make-shift tents. Numerous tents and stands are assembled, including for commissions. One tent houses around twenty people, most homeless. It’s one of the few tents that attempt to occupy the square, and thus suffers the worst of the early-morning police attack. As evening sets in, people gravitate toward the corner of the square where the general assembly takes place. Radio Debout and TV Debout begin their live continuous coverage.
The general assembly is both a political rally and a social gathering, with many people smoking and, up to last weekend when alcohol was prohibited on the square, quaffing beer or wine from open containers. It begins around 6:00 p.m. with an update from spokespeople of different commissions. An open mike follows in which people raise their hands, sign up with a circulating volunteer, and wait for their two minutes of fame—the limit set for each speech. Hundreds sit on the cement and hundreds more stand around them, spectating. The largest assembly to date has been about 2,500 people. On cold weeknights the numbers drop, and on weekends the crowds multiply. The general assembly lasts until midnight or concludes with a planned event such as a film. In the rest of the immense square people drink, smoke, juggle, ride skateboards or bicycles, breathe fire, debate heatedly, give speeches, play music, gather in drum circles, dance, listen to techno or classical concerts, sit, hang out, and wander around.
One group has repeatedly built a structure out of wood and tarps. They are “zadistes,” people defending a ZAD or “Zone à défendre”—Zone To Defend. They’ve constructed a large, semi-permanent tent four times, and each time the police have demolished it within hours. A young woman among the zadistes said, “We’re trying to occupy the square, to construct something durable.” Waving to the general assembly she said, “We want to make everything they’re saying concrete.” She explained their goal is “to make this place ours, even after the movement against the labor law burns out. There are a lot of silly things being said in the general assembly, and a lot of political tourists too. But we’re trying to create a positive force against the police.” When asked what their demands are, she said, “We don’t have particular demands, except that we’re against the labor bill and the world it represents. We’re trying to create an autonomous space.”
This and other attempts to occupy the square permanently have not (yet) succeeded, partly due to the nightly police repression, and partly due to a lack of occupiers. According to a man standing behind the table at the “Logistics” tent, “France lacks the numbers of people willing to occupy a square that were seen in Spain or the US, mainly because its housing and economic crises have not been as severe. We don’t have the forces to occupy it permanently.”
One afternoon I walked around and sat in on commissions. In the Action commission around 30 people discussed gathering indoors for an entire day to write a manifesto. They wanted to “inscribe in marble” their way of functioning, partly to “overcome some communication issues.” Occasionally a new person would propose an action for the entire movement. The Action commission would respond they were not there to coordinate all the actions taking place, but they would relay the information to the Welcome and Coordination commission that could put it on the agenda – or the person could do it themselves.
The Democracy commission wrestled with defining how or whether to vote in the general assembly. Currently the general assembly doesn’t vote or make any decisions as a body, and some feel the movement lacks a sense of direction. But how to vote with a body constantly in flux and with many not knowing the basics of issues up for debate are significant obstacles. The inclusivity and horizontality the movement is so proud of is also seen by some as a trap. Many voting methods have been debated and some have been proposed to the Intercommission, the gathering all the commissions. The discussion also took a lengthy detour into the question of violence, before coming back to the subject of democracy.
The Political Economy commission doubled in size while I observed. The moderator regularly announced to newcomers this was the Economy commission, and was regularly corrected, “Political Economy.” Participants clashed over questions such as taxing and redistribution, the current and future modes of production, solidarity-based businesses, productivism, tax havens, and the role of the state. One young man said instead of nationalizing production, which would lead to productivism, it would be a good idea to nationalize distribution. Another young man spoke about the financing of social programs. A man in a suit and tie said he is a capitalist who’s started two different businesses. He said he was impressed by this process, which he likened to an ancient Greek agora. He added that he was against large corporations which don’t pay taxes, but he supports social programs.
In the Feminist commission, open only to women and trans-women, participants discussed frustration with being subjected to sexism regularly, such as cat calls and the glass ceiling. Every few minutes the moderator would tell the men who gathered around the circle to leave as this was an exclusive commission. Sometimes they left, sometimes they wouldn’t, and the discussion continued.
In the Drawing commission, people sketched on large pieces of paper on a table. In the Hospital Debout commission, men and women wearing white coats shared information about deteriorating working conditions in the medical field. In the Poetry commission, people read their poems out loud and one man sang a song. In the University commission, representatives from different universities talked about their attempts to mobilize people to resist the labor bill as well as problems created by the underfunding of higher education. In the Social Work commission, social workers were discussing how to organize and protest against the difficulties their agencies were facing under budget cuts. The railway workers held a table informing passerby about the similarities between the labor bill and the ongoing deterioration of their working conditions. A new Strategy commission was created on May 1 after a month of Nuit Debout events, apparently answering a need.
The General Assemblies are a hodgepodge of issues, such as: the condition of slaughterhouses, the effects of society on children’s psychology, the conflict in the Congo, an original poem, staging a general strike, creating a new political party like Podemos, the portapotties made available to the movement by the town hall, the history of May 1, the earthquake in Ecuador, violence in the movement, BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions against the apartheid state of Israel), a speech from a man newly released from prison who wanted to share his feelings, May 1968, the political state of emergency, the idea of taxing robots which take away jobs, state terrorism, the elections in 2017, postal workers’ strikes and how to support them and work together toward the general strike, a song, Podemos, down with the labor bill, the solidarity economy and ethical businesses, violence in the movement, French imperialism in Chad, a heartfelt poem, the bias of unemployment statistics, voting “none of the above,” the economic crisis in Greece, opposing the physical blockade of subway lines because it prevents people from the suburbs from attending, the 6th Republic (France is currently in its 5th), something seen on TV last night, a poem, Bernie Sanders, the general strike.
A middle-aged man at the podium said: “I think this debate has gotten a little sterile. I’d like to invite everyone to bring up new ideas. My idea is that we should demand a single mandate for presidents.” A man spotted earlier in the camp of homeless people said: “I call on all of France to blockade all the large squares and open spaces.” A woman around 50 proclaimed that “we should create a statue that represents the Nuit Debout and put it in the middle of the square next to the statue of the republic.” A young man said, “We need to talk about the elections of 2017, and create an associative, horizontal movement, not a party, to promote candidates who when they win would refuse to take power but give it back immediately to the people through random selection of officials and referendums.”
A young man took the mike and said to applause, “Hello, comrades! I call myself a pragmatic anarchist.” He continued, “What I’m interested in is shrinking the state and its institutions wherever they are. I’m with a movement called “Students for Liberty,” which has lots of local groups all around. What we want is to spread liberal ideas, we want less state, fewer big corporations (cheers), fewer institutions, both in the economy and in our ways of living (more applause). So we fight for more free immigration, against the state of emergency, we give workshops on how to code email, and help people create their own start-ups. Because we’re interested in helping people rise up in all ways, with associations, with start-ups, to show that we don’t need institutions to take our destiny into our own hands.” He read a poem citing Marx and Gramsci and ended with “Vive la liberté!” The beer-soaked anarchists applauded him, likely unaware the speaker advocates for the ideas of Friedrich Von Hayek and Ayn Rand.
A black man with a suburban accent spoke around 11:30 PM, addressing the sitting crowd: “I feel like saying, what the hell are we doing here? Quit talking, get up, why not march somewhere? Let’s do something! Get the fuck up! Is this sitting night or standing-up night?” The moderator took the mike back and said to the crowd, “Sit down everyone to hear our last speaker…” and an older man read a rousing poem.
Of minorities present, more stand on the edges than participate. Rarely does someone with a suburban accent take the mike. The effort to “converge” with the working-class suburbs, where Africans and Arabs tend to live, is a recurrent question, and attempts have been made with limited success to hold Nuit Debout in these districts. The same phenomenon happened with Occupy Wall Street, with attempts to start assemblies in Brooklyn or specific neighborhoods falling flat.
Le Monde quoted one suburban activist as saying, “I feel like they’re miles away from us. This police state they’re denouncing, we’ve been living with it for years. Where were they when the suburbs rose up in 2005?” Another was quoted: “It’s too vague, I don’t see what their demands are.”
The crowd in the Place de la République is not very diverse, mainly “bobos” — young bourgeois bohemians — students, retirees, and scruffy anarchists. A young man who said he had been politicized during the global “movement of the squares” in 2011, said, “It’s just beautiful. I hope it lasts. Many people here say, after the 15M movement [in Spain], ‘we have no demands’ but I like to say, ‘we demand everything!’” He had been there almost every night since the beginning. “It’s anarchist despite itself. There are ‘bobos’ interested in it who are pissed off at the government, and there are also hard core activists, who are autonomist, anarchist, all shades of red. It’s pluralistic, libertarian – everyone loves it.” When asked about his views of the future, he said, “I think it will either massify into a Podemos style electoral movement, or there will be revolutionary fatigue and burnout.” Another distinct possibility is that the police will stop authorizing the gatherings, forcing the movement to take another course.
The speakers are often full of praise for the movement, a widely shared feeling. A young woman who had been to the Nuit Debout many times told me that “the important thing is that we’re here, and even if it doesn’t lead to anything, we will have been here. It’s an agora, not only to talk but to listen. I hope it will continue and grow. It shows that our society is still human.” Despite the scattered, apolitical and naïve nature of many speeches, seizing a public space for the purposes of free expression is indeed positive. The success of the public commissions and assemblies can also be seen as a reaction to the isolating effects of the internet. According to political essayist Emmanuel Todd, the Nuit Debout is “a stage in the maturation of minds.”
On the other hand, a number of people present expressed scepticism. A young man standing on the edge of the assembly told me, “It’s good, but I’m not sure what will come of it, it’s stagnating, I don’t think it’ll end up going anywhere. It’s very individualist and intellectual, it lacks a spark.” A young Arab man, who was there for the first time told me: “This is good, but it can easily go downhill, or off the deep end. People are calling to get rid of the state institutions, but we need a state. It seems like there’s a lot of people promoting anarchy. But otherwise I find it good. I think they should try to form a French Podemos.” A young black man, here for the first time, said: “I’m indifferent to it, sceptical about it. I don’t think it will lead to anything. It’s apolitical.” A woman carrying a baby, who came because she was curious, said, “It’s like a circus, it’s all over the place, lacks structure, and that’s annoying. That’s not what a movement will be made of.”
One young man who had been regularly coming to the Nuit Debout since the beginning told me: “At first I was optimistic and felt that the events here were taking the protests to new level. But now all these different issues and demands have diluted the movement and it’s becoming scattered. Also there’s a real anti-union sentiment, which is a shame. There’s not a real effort to go out and get workers on board.”
The issue of violence also divides the participants and is a constant subject of debate. A young man who had been here from the beginning said: “It’s different from Occupy Wall Street which was centered around itself, and 15M [in Spain]: here we do actions on the margins of the occupation. Occupy and 15M were categorically non-violent, but here that’s not true. There’s a tense relationship with the police, things break out all the time. Also, small groups of far-right people, nationalists, have tried to come here, but they’ve been forcibly kicked out.”
Indeed, the “horizontality” and inclusiveness of the Nuit Debout does not extend to everyone. Speakers have made it clear that some kinds are not welcome, namely the far-right and the “crypto-fascists,” a term often used by the anarchist left to designate people who promote French national interests against the European Union. One anti-EU activist/blogger was kicked off the square by the security team (that is, “serenity” team), which two independent and credible sources told me was filled with seasoned antifas.
Squabbles have also broken out between various very active groups (not to call them “organizers,” since they would probably refuse such a term), which accuse each other of unsavory things like cryptofascism. There are therefore two official websites, (https://www.convergence-des-luttes.org/ and http://www.nuitdebout.fr/) and bickering about control of the facebook pages.
Not all shades of red are present in Republic Square. While probably one Trotskyist group (the New Anticapitalist Party) is present without saying their name, another (Lutte Ouvrière) is staying away, since it was made clear that political parties are not welcome, and each person must speak in his/her own name. However, the youth section of the French Communist Party has gotten away with holding a stand, and played dance music.
The largest union, the CGT, has shown some scepticism but is warming up to the movement, and willing to work together in a coordinated way if possible. A more radical union, Sud-Solidaires, is somewhat more connected. Creating a link with the workers is problematic for the Nuit Debout, and some participants are wary of the unions. Clearly, a movement which takes place from 6 PM to the wee hours can’t expect to rally many workers.
Attempting to push to a new level the movement it helped spawn, Fakir called for a large meeting at the Union Hall near Republic Square on April 20. On the agenda was “Nuit Debout: The Next Step.” To a packed and cheering hall a dozen speakers praised their movement and generally called for making the link with the unions and the working class. Some also called for a general strike. The head of Fakir, François Ruffin, said we need a strategic battle plan, and proposed a big event alongside the unions at Republic Square after the Mayday march. Serge Halimi, the editor in chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, warned that the movement was too much centered on itself to be of any danger to the adversary, that having all the pieces of a watch spread on the table won’t help you figure out how to put it together and make it work, if you don’t have assembly instructions, which is a strategy. Others criticized the movement: how can we make horizontality compatible with effectiveness? We haven’t been able to inspire any insomnia in the enemy. We’re only speaking in our own names, and refusing spokespeople means renouncing important historical experiences. This is sterile introspection. We need to figure out how to vote. And not forget the priority: killing the labor bill.
After the invited speeches, the floor was opened to the crowd, and the meeting became a chaotic free-for-all. People were invited to speak for a maximum of one minute about concrete proposals for the next step, and not just express themselves like during the general assembly. Perhaps sincerely believing they were offering practical proposals, many plunged into internal debates within the commissions. Some refused any convergence with the unions, the Nuit Debout is self-managed and autonomous. Others said they didn’t need to wait for a bunch of intellectuals to tell them to plan a big event on Mayday. One person said she had a very concrete proposal and then read a long text she proposed for a flyer. Ruffin repeatedly grabbed the microphone away from people who weren’t being concrete enough, and asked the crowd, so should we make a convergence with the unions? No vote was taken, though it seemed that the idea was accepted more or less. The meeting ended early.
On the other hand, after the major protest march on April 28, the general assembly was more organized than usual, with a program of planned speeches from leaders and representatives of the unions, Nuit Debout commissions, and national coordinating assemblies of high school and university students. On the agenda was the convergence of all their efforts to overcome the labor bill. The tension between some Nuit Debout activists and the unions was on display when the crowd chanted “general strike!” as the leader of the CGT took the mike. On May 1 after the march the crowds were larger than usual, and the general assembly was oriented to a single subject, labor, but the unions were not formally represented. Both marches were marked by violence, with stand-offs between riot cops and masked protesters hurling stones, bottles and other objects. The Nuit Debout was shut down violently on Thursday evening soon after midnight and around 11:30 p.m. on Mayday.
The next event will be on May 3, when the labor bill will be debated in Parliament and protested outside it. As the warm months approach, we will see if the Nuit Debout is able to evolve, strengthen, overcome its disorganization, coordinate with other groups protesting the labor bill, integrate its own lessons, and survive the repression.