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

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Banners read"Nuit Debout" or "Rise up at Night," "The conservative bourgeois treat us like dogs, it is time to bite", Place de la Republique, Paris, April 4, 2016. Francois Mori/ Press Association. All rights reserved.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.“Nuit Debout” (“Standing
Night”) has now become a national movement.

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. “We
are very grateful to this law for waking us up from our political lethargy”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

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. “a government
that pretends to be a left-wing government but is the total opposite”.

The lack of alternative in party

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. The nationalist and xenophobic “Front National” frames itself as the sole

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

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
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

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

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.

"They have billons, we are millions" on the Place de la Republique, April 3, 2016 ,Paris.Bertrand Combaldieu./Press Association. All rights reserved. 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

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.

Crowd listen to a woman during a gathering on the Place de la Republique Sunday, April 3, 2016 in Paris. Bertrand Combaldieu/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

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. https://opendemocracy.net/geoffrey-pleyers/nuit-debout-citizens-are-back-in-squares-in-paris

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