French politics

Nuit debout and the new mood of French oppositional politics

The real challenge facing the movement is how to expand beyond the Parisian ring road, towards the suburbs and across the country.

Our nights are more beautiful than your days!” (Nos nuits sont plus belles que vos jours!), proclaims a banner hung between a chestnut tree and a lamppost. Like many of its kind, this poetic statement will have a short life span. Come the morning and the police, assisted by the cleaning services of the Paris municipality, will reclaim the square and strive to erase any trace of nocturnal activity. But there’s something Sisyphean to these reassertions of state authority – tonight, the sleepwalkers will be back, and with them these insolent aphorisms mocking daytime normalcy.

I resist. Place de la République, April 2016.
I resist. Place de la République, April 2016.

For the last three weeks, the participants of Nuit debout, or Up All Night, have been gathering at Place de la République, in the heart of Paris, to protest against a reform of labour laws, “and the world it represents.” The movement started on March 31, after a group of protesters converged on the square and decided to occupy it. While a few Left-wing intellectuals – starting with the journalist and film director François Ruffin – played a prominent role in this initiative, the movement is officially leaderless and aims to stay aloof of political parties so as to avoid being captured by vested interests.

The General Assembly of Nuit debout. Place de la République, April 2016.
The General Assembly of Nuit debout. Place de la République, April 2016.

While reclaiming the legacy of past revolutionary episodes – from the 1789 anti-monarchist Revolution to the 1870 Commune de Paris, the participants are anything but insurgents in the making. Some violent incidents did occur in the margins of the movement and the question of violence – or rather, of self-defence against police brutalities or sexual harassment – figures prominently in the discussions between participants. But this is precisely what the thousand-odd crowd gathered on the square every night is primarily here for: Debating freely, frenetically, in the deep of the night.

 After a women-only meeting of the feminist commission of Nuit debout was disturbed by male chauvinists, a member of the commission takes a self-defence class.
After a women-only meeting of the feminist commission of Nuit debout was disturbed by male chauvinists, a member of the commission takes a self-defence class.

Despite the diversity of the topics covered, recurring themes stand out: The imperative of the convergence des luttes (the convergence of social struggles, an old Trotskyite motto), the value of work in the context of a much-reviled neo-liberal economy, the widening gap between the people and the political class, the crisis of the welfare state, sexual inequalities, and the fate of migrants and refugees.

But much of this freewheeling talk is in fact about the conditions of possibility of public speech. An episode that occurred on the night of April 10-11 exemplifies this reflexive streak, which can be tiring but which is integral to the dialogic politics of the movement. After a rumour of imminent police intervention started doing the rounds, the seasoned activist who had put his sound system at the disposal of the participants preferred to play it safe and back out, leaving the crowd literally voiceless. The moderator of the assemblée générale (general assembly, the main forum of discussion of Nuit debout, where the workings of its commissions are being discussed collectively) then resorted to use an old megaphone, as in the early days of the movement. But the device proved too weak to carry the voice of the speakers across the crowd. Some male participants then suggested doing without it, asking the orators to speak as loud as they could. This did not appeal to everyone: some of the participants considered this discriminated against less self-confident speakers – an implicit critique of the already sexually imbalanced profile of the orators, to the detriment of women. As a last resort, the moderator opted for the “human microphone” technique popularised by the Occupy Wall Street movement – the first rows in the audience would repeat every couple of sentences by the orator, followed by those sitting behind, and so on. This only made every intervention ridiculously longer and, as a 20-something participant sitting behind me confided sarcastically to his neighbour, it likened this nocturnal assembly to “a sect.” Hopefully, before utter aural chaos descended upon the crowd, a participant offered to “improve the atmosphere” with a bit of a sing-along together. His pastiche of a song by the enfant terrible of French indie rock, Daniel Darc, whose lyrics he had modified to make it a plea for “la grève générale” (a general strike), enchanted the crowd, which joined him in unison.

The beginning of the General Assembly of Nuit debout. Place de la République, April 2016.
The beginning of the General Assembly of Nuit debout. Place de la République, April 2016.
Party time, Saturday night at Nuit debout, Place de la République, April 2016.
Party time, Saturday night at Nuit debout, Place de la République, April 2016.

While songs and poems – whether posted across the square, written on the pavement or recited by speakers at the assemblée générale – are part and parcel of the movement, music occupies a more ambiguous position. Every night, groups of participants and passers-by gather around djembe (African drums) players. Gradually, a more festive mood takes hold of a part of the crowd, with friends and strangers alike dancing to the drummers’ beat. On Friday and Saturday nights, it is the DJs who drop the beats, with hundreds of youths dancing to the tune of electronic music or hip-hop. A good deal of these party goers seem to show little concern for the political component of the movement and these more festive events happen on a different section of the square. Then again, it would be tricky to define what constitutes politics here – after all, aren’t all cats grey in the dark?

One cannot help to notice that this crowd of teufeurs (ravers) is significantly more mixed than the usual participants of Nuit debout. Unlike what critics of the movement have been suggesting, its participants are not all white Parisian bobos (“bourgeois-bohemians” – highly educated liberals combining an affluent lifestyle with a non-conformist attitude). While Parisian students, artists and professionals seem to be over-represented in the movement (if only because these groups have a more flexible agenda), less economically privileged sections of French society (employees, youths of North- or Sub-Saharan African descent…) are also making their presence felt. But this relative diversity pales in comparison with that of weekend ravers. In fact, few if any Parisian public spaces (to the notable exception of football stadiums) can boast of such a level of social diversity. The parties on the margins of Nuit debout have provided middle-class and more underprivileged youths – mainly young males of North-African descent – with a rare opportunity to dance to the same tune. In a context of growing polarisation of the French society on ethnic and religious lines, such achievements deserve to be underlined. This may not quite be one nation under a groove, but this is as close as we’ll get to it.

A graffiti reviving the memory of the 1870 Paris Commune near the Place de la République, April 2016.
A graffiti reviving the memory of the 1870 Paris Commune near the Place de la République, April 2016.

The occupation of the Place de la République by this mixed crowd of activists, passers-by and party goers is reminiscent of similar protest movements of recent years, and in particular of the Spanish Indignants Movement, which led to the formation of the Left-wing political party, Podemos, and its subsequent electoral successes. For now, the chances of seeing a similar evolution of Nuit debout remain rather slim, as the participants of the movement show little inclination for a more formal kind of politics. Rather than in its capacity to transform French party politics, however, the real challenge facing the movement is how to expand beyond the Parisian ring road, towards the suburbs and across the country.

In the early morning of 10 April, clashes erupted between the riot police and demonstrators in the margins of Nuit debout. Place de la République, 10 April 2016.
In the early morning of 10 April, clashes erupted between the riot police and demonstrators in the margins of Nuit debout. Place de la République, 10 April 2016.

Whatever its outcome, the movement already has several achievements to its credit: besides re-injecting a good dose of spontaneity in French oppositional politics, it has reclaimed a public space which had become a monument to the traumatic events of 2015, from the attacks against Charlie Hebdo to the November 13 massacre. Following these attacks, the square – and in particular the statue of Marianne, the personification of the French Republic, located at its centre – had become an improvised memorial to the victims of the attacks. A sombre, though poignant mood had descended upon the square – which, incidentally, had been freshly renovated, with a large section of it being restricted to pedestrians. While Répu’, as Parisians colloquially refer to it, was the theatre of the largest demonstration in recent French history on January 11, 2015, it was taken over by crowds of emotional mourners in the days after the November attacks. There was also some poetry in these collective mourning rituals – in those strangers embracing each other in the dark, in those washed down drawings and dripping candles, in those bottles of wine, literary quotes and hedonistic professions of faith thrown in the face of barbarism. But the whole square reeked of death and what was being voiced here was essentially a sense of loss. Nuit debout did not completely chase away “the ghosts of the 13”, as a close friend living in the neighbourhood once described to me this collective scar and enduring presence. As a forum as much a dance-floor, however, Nuit debout has brought the party to the cemetery.

All photographs by Laurent Gayer.

Laurent Gayer is a research fellow at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (Sciences Po-CERI), Paris.

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