It’s a familiar script for anyone who knows recent French history: the government rolls out a reform, citizens react with outrage, and Paris is filled with demonstrations and strikes.
The current turmoil began in March, when President François Hollande proposed reworking the country’s labour code. Known as the “El Khomri law” after the minister responsible, Myriam El Khomri, the reform shares some elements with earlier attempts – including providing companies with more flexibility in hiring and firing – but the results have been the same: widespread resistance.
This started with an online petition that gathered more than a million signatures in two weeks, and has since shifted into the public realm. Thousands of protestors have occupied the city’s Place de la République with all-night meetings and debates, and the protest is now known as “Nuit Debout” (roughly, “standing up all night”).
The ambition is to create a shared space that allows citizens to exchange stories, express shared outrage, and imagine a better world. Recently, the movement has spread beyond Paris to Nice, Bordeaux and Lyon.
In early 2006, similar protests broke out in France against a proposed “first-hire contract”. Students, unions and left-wing political parties united against the proposed contract, and after months of protests, then-prime minister Dominique de Villepin abandoned the idea.
In Nuit Debout key roles have been played by author, filmmaker and activist François Ruffin, whose film Merci Patron! has been a touchstone for the protesters, and economist Frédéric Lordon. There are echoes of Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s indignados (“the outraged”). In Spain, the protest movement gave rise to the political party Podemos, which made significant gains in the December 2015 election and is now playing a key role in the negotiations to form a national government.
And as the protests have grown in France, supporters have gone beyond the initial objective of forcing the withdrawal of the labour law, as happened in 2006, to the idea of launching a wider political movement.
The law that started it all
Of course, simple frustration isn’t enough to launch a mass mobilisation – a trigger is needed. The proposed labour reform allowed the protests to spread beyond the core group of high-school students, activists and labour unions, and to gain visibility in the mass media. The law also provided the framework for a regular series of demonstrations, allowing the movement to establish a cohesive form. As Frédéric Lordon said during the first Nuit Debout on March 31:
We will never be able to sufficiently thank the El Khomri law for having woken us from our political slumber.
What distinguishes social movements from mere protests is that they have a larger purpose, not one specific demand. From the first meetings of university and high school students on March 9, the El Khomri law served as an opportunity to express general indignation. In protest leaflets, students called for resistance “against government policy” rather than just this one bill. During marches, protesters expressed their disappointment with the political left in general and the ruling Socialist Party in particular.
Standing up to the elites
The students denounced the collusion between the country’s political and economic elites, much like the Occupy movements that swept the world in 2011. They joined many activists, intellectuals, and progressive politicians from the “left of the left”, a political movement that forced a vote of confidence against Prime Minister Manuel Valls in 2014.
The lack of viable political alternatives in France makes it a particularly favourable time to mobilise outrage and propose a more participatory democracy, centred around the people. French citizens no longer identify with national and European political elites. The system appears to them to be “democracy without choice”, where voting for either the left-wing Socialist Party or the right-wing Republicans barely changes the government’s social and economic policies.
Debates over finance minister Emmanuel Macron’s economic programme (passed only with a manoeuvre that sidestepped a parliamentary vote) only strengthened this conviction. As did the failed proposed constitutional amendment to strip French citizenship from convicted terrorists with dual nationality.
With disappointment in the government widespread, and established leftist movements such as the Green Party and the Front de Gauche torn by internal dissent, the only option for progressive citizens has been to express disapproval and build “another policy” from the streets. In Nuit Debout, as in the Occupy camps, it has all been about “getting our act together as citizens” to question the relevance of representative democracy.
A youth with no future?
If Occupy, the indignados and Nuit Debout aren’t specifically youth movements, young people are the driving force behind them. Through these demonstrations, they affirm and express themselves as individuals, as a force for democracy, willing to re-imagine the world. This all-encompassing desire can be seen embodied in a single tweet:
We need to think of tomorrow’s society, with humanism, freedom, equality, fraternity.
So will Nuit Debout fizzle like Occupy or follow the same path as Los Indignados, which sparked political change in Spain?
While both movements refused to engage in the electoral process, some of their activists chose to do so. The campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn, elected to the head of the British Labour Party in 2015, and Bernie Sanders, currently running against Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee for US president, have been empowered by young activists angry and frustrated with politics as usual.
The rise of the Podemos political party in Spain was both the continuation and inversion of the indignados movement: it showed that political change is possible, but only by moving from indignation to organisation. To do so, Pablo Iglesias, secretary-general of Podemos since 2014, betrayed certain core values of the indignados, including its leaderless structure and the requirement that decisions be made by the largest possible number of participants.
While Nuit Debout borrows some of the Spanish movement’s codes, the political situation in France and Europe is quite different from 2011, with the rise of far-right parties and security concerns. Nuit Debout’s centre on the Place de la République is where the huge public memorials were held after Charlie Hebdo and the November 13 attacks. Some politicians, including former prime minister and presidential candidate François Fillon, have criticised the movement as being a security risk.
With France’s recently extended state of emergency, authorities haven’t just targeted potential terrorists. Muslims and young people are regularly brutalised by the police, and some student demonstrations have been violently suppressed.
The Nuit Debout movement in France will have to find its own way forward, building on both the successes and the limitations of its predecessors. Without predicting what its future may be, bringing together thousands of citizens of all generations to reaffirm that “another world is possible” – that there are progressive alternatives centred on democracy, social justice and dignity – is already a huge success.
Translated from the French by Leighton Walter Kille.