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Nuit Debout, by Nick Riemer

A new, bottom-up movement on the streets of France

Since Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park, the occupation of public space has imposed itself as the Left’s globally favoured mode of confrontation with the standing political order. The most recent example—the ‘Nuit Debout’ (‘Up All Night’) movement in France—captured public attention at the end of March in the midst of a new tranche of government austerity reforms, showing a stamina through the following weeks that surprised most observers. During long nightly assemblies, the country’s public squares become democratic agoras where people air their grievances with the political system. Nurses, theatre workers, taxi drivers, railway and postal employees, sans papiers, fast-food employees, pilots and airline workers, immigrants, university and high-school students and union leaders are just a small sample of the people who have come to speak at Nuit Debout meetings throughout France in April and May. These serve as the launch pad for various actions—occupations of theatres, cinemas, banks and supermarkets, protests against business leaders, delegations sent to support striking railway workers, leafleting sorties outside factories—and hear reports from ‘commissions’ discussing everything from the protest vote, art and libraries to France’s colonial legacy in Africa. As a rallying point for different Left currents, Nuit Debout offers a fresh opportunity to measure the potential, and the limits, of contemporary challenges to official politics.

Prompted by wildly unpopular government proposals for new labour laws—described as a return to Zola’s Germinal—Nuit Debout is the latest precipitate of the dissolution of public confidence in the political establishment. The movement was catalysed when a small band of activists around the Left newspaper Fakir issued a call to Parisian participants in a 31 March union-called demonstration: to escalate the opposition to the laws, they suggested that demonstrators not go home when proceedings ended. Congregating at place de la République, people stayed debout (‘up’) all evening holding debates and watching Merci Patron!, the Fakir team’s rousing morality tale of retrenched workers in depressed northern France sticking it to the ‘oligarchy’ that exploits them economically and politically. From its Parisian beginning, the movement quickly spread, its bottom-up, leaderless organisational form, as well as the crowds drawn to it, both fascinating and baffling commentators.

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The elite stranglehold over official politics is especially glaring in Fifth Republic France, a country run by a small technocratic cadre unfailingly reproduced by mythological state institutions like the École Nationale d’Administration. The recent biography of the late Richard Descoings, head of another such top ‘school’, Sciences Po, and something of a liberal culture hero, is a bracing reminder of the cavalier entitlement and self-regarding sterility of this milieu.

Descoings’ career provides some insights into the blockages of the current system. Promoted to the head of Sciences Po as a result of his political connections and without appropriate academic qualifications, Descoings made some modest efforts, before his mysterious death in a Manhattan hotel, to open the institution to students from backgrounds other than privileged white ones. Efforts like these, which, to judge from published accounts, left much of the establishment simultaneously aghast and oozing self-congratulation, contribute to the powerful ideology of meritocracy on which the reproduction of bourgeois elites characteristically rests.

Notwithstanding the existence of political dynasties, Western democracies like France aren’t hereditary aristocracies, and there is some limited permeability of the ‘oligarchic’ political class to entrants without the usual material or social capital—the object, as Descoings’ reform shows, of considerable noise whenever it actually happens. This kind of theoretical semi-openness causes a lot of confusion about the real character of the political system. Even though everyone knows that, for instance, members of parliament are usually rich, the fact that outsiders can be admitted to elite finishing schools like Sciences Po and notionally go on to become leaders in government or business fosters the illusion of the system’s ‘democratic’ character.

No doubt some of Descoings’ former students are among the large groups of twenty- and thirty-somethings who constitute much of Nuit Debout in Paris. This crowd sees clearly that, whatever its social origins, the people who run France are not only thoroughly oligarchic in essence but also constitutionally committed to serving the interests of the Medef, the all-powerful business lobby. It doesn’t matter whose hands are actioning the vice around the body politic; the point is to maintain the grip. Strangling democratic initiatives from below is just part of the job. ‘As long as it’s easy-going’—‘bon enfant’, literally ‘good child’—‘we could put up with it’, the head of the Socialist Party said about Nuit Debout early on. All dissent, in other words, will be allowed, as long as it isn’t serious. When it is, the riot police will be called in.

The labour law, aimed at disabling unions’ bargaining power and stripping employee entitlements, is the latest manifestation of the Socialist government’s servility before capital. What to do about it? Any hopes that the executive would bow to popular anger were soon dashed. In a coincidence lost on no one, debate on the law in the Assemblée Nationale started on the eightieth anniversary of the election of the Front Populaire, the communist-socialist alliance during whose term the labour movement won historic gains. Largely in response to the intensity of public opposition—as well as Nuit Debout, unions have mobilised strongly against the reforms, with numerous large strike days and demonstrations since the start of March—the government, confronted with over 5000 amendments, quickly concluded that it didn’t have the numbers, even within its own ranks, to get the law through parliament. It therefore invoked, for the fourth time in fifteen months, a constitutional clause—the ‘49-3’—that allows it to short-circuit parliamentary debate. In what some took as a sign of the distance the Parti Socialiste has travelled to the right, the bullish prime minister, Manuel Valls, announced the use of this measure on 10 May, the thirty-fifth anniversary of Mitterrand’s victory in the 1981 presidential election.

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 Valls’ passage en force doesn’t mean the fight is over: as the largest union confederation, the CGT, has been quick to remind supporters, an earlier reform, Chirac’s pro-employer contrat de première embauche—first work contract—law was introduced via the 49-3 in 2006, promulgated, and then withdrawn as a result of opposition in the street.

Will Nuit Debout stay on its feet as the unions try for a similar result this time round? The movement finds itself confronted with a familiar structural paradox: the fact that the Left is so often dependent on its political opponents to supply the energy it needs to mobilise. As the Socialists pursue their unsavoury ideological decomposition, the labour law comes on top of betrayals over refugees and extensions to police powers under the post-Bataclan state of emergency. It has pushed French progressives over the edge: Nuit Debout is one of the results.

But how to maintain the rage once the immediate trigger of labour reform is settled, one way or the other? Maybe, as some claim, contestation will only be stoked by the government’s bypassing of parliament. Union demonstrations after the 49-3 have, certainly, been resolutely defiant through the clouds of tear gas. On the other hand, activist bravado could just as well peter out: at the time of writing in mid-May, signs of flagging momentum are being openly acknowledged at République. To transform the defensive élan of its beginnings into a durable political project, it seems plausible that Nuit Debout will need to develop a positive, offensive conception of where it wants to go politically. As a supporter wrote on the movement’s Facebook page in April, ‘beyond opposition to the labour law, it’s the hope of finally having the opportunity to stop voting against things rather than for them’ that leads many to foster hope in the movement.

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 There is, however, an immediate hitch, lodged deep in Nuit Debout’s political DNA. Like the exceptionally high levels of support for Marine Le Pen’s Front National, Nuit Debout is a product of the widespread revulsion against party politics, whose opportunistic electoral betrayals and outright public lies have thoroughly discredited traditional parties. But, from its entirely well-founded critique of political duplicity, the movement seems to have drawn the wrong conclusion: that political programs and communication are intrinsically compromised, and that a communicated public platform must be avoided as much as possible. As a result, Nuit Debout has refused to appoint spokespeople, adopted an 80-per-cent-majority rule for the adoption of motions, and shown a strong reluctance to make any concrete political demands beyond the withdrawal of the labour law. This makes it virtually impossible to develop political proposals identifiably its own. If it did develop any, no spokespeople would be allowed to defend them publicly in the name of the movement.

Different rationalisations have been offered for this policy. For some, establishing political positions will be divisive: the fragmentation the young movement risks in trying to arrive at any such positions must be avoided. For others, in particular the academic Frédéric Lordon, one of Nuit Debout’s originators, the very notion of a political demand is problematic since it can imply acquiescence to the parliamentary status quo in which, and of which, demands are made. Lordon has subsequently partly backtracked from this position, emphasising the indispensability of demands to serious political movements. At a moment when opposition to the labour laws and the state of emergency offers a realistic basis for a common concrete politics, the hesitancy about elaborating one seems misplaced. Not saying what you really want certainly doesn’t exclude anyone, but it gives few grounds for people to really commit to the movement.

A similar point applies to the refusal to appoint official spokespeople. If Nuit Debout had strict processes of democratic accountability, spokespeople would be under the control of the assembly. Its unwillingness to institute those sorts of arrangements is a sign of the depth of the ambient alienation from politics: disillusionment with social-democratic business as usual is, apparently, so deep that people have even come to doubt the possibility of meaningful public communication in the name of a group. Could this, paradoxically, be another manifestation of exactly the features of official politics that Nuit Debout deplores? Lack of belief in public statement manifests as opportunistic deceitfulness in career politicians; in Nuit Debout, it surfaces as simple abstinence.

This is all the more surprising given the striking ‘discursivisation’ of political participation that has come to characterise the movement. One of the constants of the way Nuit Debout is spoken about is its presentation, first and foremost, as a place where people can come to express themselves. ‘Since when’, someone asked on Facebook the day after the 49-3, ‘is speaking not acting? If you don’t think speaking is acting, I really wonder what you expect from political commitment of any kind’. In an age dominated by a lifestyle Left and the belief that personal decisions are intrinsically political, it must seem that actually coming to a square and publicly talking about what is wrong in France constitutes a heavily political act. Certainly, the government’s hostility to Nuit Debout suggests that this is exactly how it sees things, too.

Not everyone agrees, however. At a meeting put on in mid-April to consider the movement’s future—tellingly, held indoors at a different location from the usual plein air gatherings at République, which are unsuitable, after all, for sustained political debate—a militant from Spain’s 15-M movement warned of the dangers of just talking, noting that ‘while we talked, the Spanish government expelled thousands of sans papiers’. At a Nuit Debout meeting in Metz, a man said that he didn’t agree that the movement’s next step should be to draft a constitution, as had been initially proposed by Lordon: there was no point getting into philosophy and texts. The only way the movement could last, he thought, was by acting. On Radio Debout, the web-radio established by the Parisian assembly, someone else claimed that support in the crowd for direct action was greater than you might expect.

The elevation of speech into the prototypical act of resistance can colour some participants’ understanding of political events: in the draft of a rare communiqué, the 49-3, for instance, was bizarrely denounced mainly as an attack on deputies’ freedom of expression, not as the latest instrument of neoliberal austerity politics. This draft was, encouragingly, rejected by the general assembly and reworked by an ad-hoc committee, in which I briefly participated. The resulting final version was politically clearer, though still, in its references to citizenship and human rights as the basis of its politics, unambiguously social-democratic in character (unlike, for instance, several other motions of censure that appeared at the same time).

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 The absence of officially conveyed demands did, it’s true, have the advantage of initially conferring an aura of protean formlessness on Nuit Debout. This may have added to the movement’s mystique, fuelling the sense of a mysterious shape-shifting giant awakening on the left of politics. ‘Making them scared’, Fakir’s initially articulated goal for the movement, may well have been achieved. But as it becomes normalised, its reluctance to speak in a single voice will leave its identity to be defined by others—quite a paradox for a movement that is desperate to avoid being co-opted by the existing actors of the French Left.

It would be unreasonable to expect an inchoate movement barely two months old to have a ratified or even coherent platform. The problem is that it shows little intention of developing one: the closest proposal, Lordon’s idea of drafting an alternative constitution, seems an idealistic exercise at several removes from the pressing need for decisions about concrete political goals. As Denis Godard from the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has observed, Lordon’s proposal also forgets ‘that the rules of a new world cannot be written by a minority, but require the insurrection of the majority’. When the movement’s principles are spoken of, they concern only internal issues—occupation, self-organisation, horizontality. Nothing is said about political goals beyond withdrawal of the labour law. This makes it hard for people to see if they agree enough with Nuit Debout to justify coming to a meeting. Already, participants’ apparent introversion has been identified as an obstacle to participation by immigrant-background residents of the disenfranchised and exploited periphery of big French cities. No one is ‘going to come up to Paris to listen to people talk’, as a well-known activist from the Paris suburbs put it.

Fusing the metropolitan protests with seething suburban discontent would be a major development, but serious obstacles stand in the way. The radical left-wing Parti des Indigènes de la République has pointed out that, for people from the suburbs, neither labour-law reform nor opposition to extended police powers are powerful mobilising factors. Twenty eight per cent of people from the suburbs are unemployed and so unaffected by changes to employment conditions; for all of them, intensified police persecution has long been normal. Perhaps, if Nuit Debout could agree on a platform that made clear exactly where it stands on these issues, it would find a more willing audience. It would also be less prey to predictable criticism from the Right that the movement stands for nothing other than the interests of white bobos with a university education—a prominent proportion of the participants, and a perfectly self-aware one: as one speaker in Paris acknowledged, to general amusement, ‘I’m all three’.

This demographic may not, however, be as exclusive as it might seem. As the sociologist Emmanuel Todd explained to Fakir, young graduates now constitute no less than 40 per cent of their age bracket. To criticise Nuit Debout for the ‘over-representation’ of this social category is therefore to ignore just how preponderant it is. Be that as it may, Nuit Debout is insistent that no one who speaks about it is representing anyone other than themselves.

Hostility to representation is deep rooted in the French Left, as much the product of decades of betrayal by parties, union leaderships and other putative representatives as of the influence of identity politics, a fluid liberal individualism and a certain Gallic postmodernism. ‘There’s no more representation’, Gilles Deleuze told Michel Foucault in a well-known 1972 conversation, ‘all there is is action, the action of theory, the action of practice in connected relays or in networks’. Spain’s 15-M, with its slogan no nos representan—‘they don’t represent us’—provides a superficial precedent for Nuit Debout’s attitude. But the critique of representation at the Puerta del Sol in 2011 was explicitly directed against traditional politicians. Nothing in it prevented 15-M from issuing an abundantly clear political manifesto, something that has so far been beyond Nuit Debout.

Representation is intrinsically linked to collective action. Individuals have much less need to be represented than groups do: mostly, they can represent themselves. Groups need representation to allow them to intervene politically with a united voice, so as to concentrate the weight of collective numbers onto a single political proposition. Without stating its politics and authorising spokespeople to engage in debate about it, a group has no capacity to transcend the prima facie identity of its individual members. When a group of mainly young, educated and middle-class Parisians call for deep-seated political change but insist they are only representing themselves, people from the suburbs have reason to ask whose interests the movement is meant to serve.

For those parts of French society who identify with Nuit Debout enough to turn up, the movement makes a genuine effort to create a democracy of participation. At a Toulouse meeting, someone went through the crowd to note down and then present the views of anyone who didn’t feel confident to speak. In Paris, interpretation is sometimes available for English speakers, and the gender balance of contributions is monitored. The commissions that originate and implement the movement’s initiatives are open to all comers.

The movement’s horizontality stands in stark contrast to the inaccessibility of party apparatuses, but it’s hard to see how it can be maintained. As Lordon notes in his recent book, Imperium: Structures and Affects of Body Politics, verticality is necessary to any social group; the only question is how overtly it is acknowledged. Similarly, Fakir’s François Ruffin, the star of Merci Patron!, seems to endorse the necessity of democratic leadership—‘a chief of staff to discipline and educate the soldiers’—in an imaginary interview with Gramsci published in 2015. With these kinds of sentiments expressed by two central figures in Nuit Debout’s genesis, the movement’s current incapacitating lack of direction is something of a paradox.

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 Where will it all go? At the moment, the meetings showcase radically centrifugal political directions, an untenable mixture of diffuse anticapitalism, liberalism, lifestyle leftism, revolutionary socialism and social-democratic reformism. Calls for widespread civil disobedience mix with promotion of vegetarianism and demands for a union-led general strike. Opinions differ on whether the long-term aim is to influence politicians and corporations or to be rid of them.

Almost 40 per cent of Occupy Wall Street activists at Zuccotti park were disillusioned Obama campaign workers, trying to create something different in the wake of what Trotsky called the ‘fetid disintegration of reformism amid the wreckage of all its conquests and hopes’. OWS may have fizzled out with little concrete effect, but it is credited as one of the factors behind the extraordinary Sanders-led rehabilitation of ‘socialism’ in the American political consciousness. 15-M, too, has had a seismic influence on official Spanish politics through its spawning of the Podemos party—a development nevertheless seen by many as an electoralist betrayal of the genuine participatory democracy of its Indignados beginnings.

The situation in France contains none of the conditions that favoured the meteoric rise of Podemos. For many at Nuit Debout, the only way forward is to create new political institutions, not play electoralist games within the old ones. How many attendees share a desire for such deep transformation is anyone’s guess. The blurry but real popular energy expressed at meetings could go in any number of concrete directions, and could easily succumb to reabsorption by social-democratic business as usual. In the absence of any attempt to harness the full collective power of participants for anything but talk, there is a real likelihood that the extraordinary energy, ingenuity and anger that have thrust République to the front pages will have been wasted.

During the foundation of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in 2009, one of the delegates characterised the party’s spirit as that of a ‘melancholy open to the future’. Nuit Debout, in contrast, seems to be the vehicle of an optimism of the will that the older radical Left can, sadly, only dream of. But if it is to gain actual political traction, it will need to break from its discursive, spectatorial mode and start to act. At the outset, it was mainly a nightly event. Those peaks of attendance now seem long past. For the movement to survive and things to really change, it will have to agree on what kind of political force it wants, and is able, to be.