«Nuit Debout» : citizens are back in the squares in Paris

by Geoffrey Pleyers

This blog post was originally published on Open Democracy.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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 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.

How to cite:
Pleyers G. (2016) « Nuit Debout » : citizens are back in the squares in Paris, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 8 April.

Geoffrey Pleyers ist Professor für Soziologie an der Université Catholique de Louvain und Präsident des Research Committee 47 der International Sociological Association “Social Classes and Social Movements”. Im kommenden Jahr ist er an der gemeinsam mit dem ipb organisierten Konferenz “Cross-movement Mobilization” beteiligt.

Einen weiteren Beitrag zu Nuit Debout von Sabrina Zajak findet sich in der Debatte “Nächte des Zorns – Frankreichs wütende Jugend” im Hessischen Rundfunk. Der Podcast ist auf der Seite des HR verfügbar (ab 45:00).

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