Define your generation here. Generation What
France’s Nuit Debout awakens the politics of the streets
 
 
Courtesy: Olivier Ortelpa via Wikimedia
 

According to the Nuit Debout calendar, it was “March 45.” It was 3:30 pm.

Clamor. Shouting. Shots.

Riot police were moving. People were running. Others just stepped aside.

I poured some lemon juice on my scarf, and dove in.

It was a small clearing. Automatic sweepers were already cleaning the place. Traffic resumed. People came back. The CRS — Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, France’s Central Security Forces — returned to their positions around the square.

The statue in Place de la République was starting to emerge out of the smoke. The teargas wasn’t strong. The one used in Egypt always seemed rougher, but maybe that’s because of the air of Cairo. We should do a teargas tasting, I thought.

République has been renovated in 2013. From a roundabout, it became a large pedestrian square, with trees, wooden benches, a fountain, the statue at its center, and Haussmannian buildings around it. In a strange twist of events, the buildings reminded me of Cairo, when five years ago, landing in Tahrir Square for the January 25 revolution, the surrounding architecture was reminiscent of Paris.

Today, République has become a beautiful and large space, somehow full of its emptiness, as if it was a void waiting to be filled — the perfect spot for gatherings.

On January 11, 2015, it witnessed  a major demonstration after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, claimed by Al-Qaeda. Hundreds of thousands people marched against terrorism. Last November, Paris was struck again, this time by the Islamic State. Nearly 150 people died in both attacks. Covered in candles, flowers, poems and drawings, République became a place of mourning; Marianne, the statue in its center, a symbol of the French republic, was like a cenotaph.

When I came back last December, everybody was talking about the attacks. Everybody was whispering a story about a friend, or a friend of a friend, who was somehow affected. At nights, the streets were empty. République square became a place of mourning, and Marianne, its statue, a cenotaph. Paris was hurt.

Something changed in the spring since Nuit Debout (“Rise up at Night”) started.

People gathered at République not to march, but to protest. They looked like the ones who were killed on November 13; a middle-class youth, frequenters of nearby cafes and restaurants, such as the Bataclan where the shooting took place. They occupied the square, demonstrated in the streets and confronted the police. Nuit Debout became the new talk of the town. Paris was recovering.

***

Nuit Debout was born from a drop: “The drop of water that made the vase spill over” was the French expression demonstrators used in the square to explain the situation, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This “drop” was a new bill submitted by the current socialist government on workers’ rights. Its point was to make labour laws more flexible by reducing employee protection. For example, compensation would be limited in the case of layoffs. Companies were free to negotiate local contracts, undercutting nationally agreed upon standards and ending an era where the law was used to protect workers in a country where unions are the weakest in western Europe.

The initiative started on the night of March 31. The organizers decided there was no good reason for March to be over. The point was to occupy République and other squares in France. Protests were taking place two, three times a week since the beginning of March.

The trigger was the bill on workers’ rights, but protesters had a lot to complain about. A leftist middle-class impoverished by nearly a decade of financial crisis and lack of representation were key elements in the mobilization.

High school students were blocking the lycées, undergraduate students blocked universities. Railway workers were protesting new bills threatening their rights. There were demonstrators supporting migrants, and others demonstrating against police violence. Battles between protesters and CRS were more and more violent, in a context state of emergency post-terrorist attacks, where demonstrations are supposed to be forbidden.

Plainclothes police chased and beat up protesters at a Parisian university on March 17, at the request of the university dean. A week later, on March 24, the CRS were caught on video beating up a black high school student during a demonstration. A young protester fell into a coma after a policeman threw a stun grenade into an unauthorized protest on May 26. On the other side, other protesters torched a police car on May 18, away from a demonstration in République square against “hatred toward cops,” organized by a right-wing police syndicate.

At the March 45 demonstration, “We were roughly 5,000 protesters when we arrived on République. The CRS were very close to us. We couldn’t really move nor demonstrate. Then some started chanting ‘tout le monde déteste la police’ (everybody hates the police). The CRS charged, and flooded the square with teargas. It happened very fast,” says Abdoulaye Traore.

Abdoulaye was sitting behind a café in Place de la République with a dozen of his friends, among them, Opélie and Najwa. Abdoulaye, 24, and Opélie Mendes, 20, study political science at the Universite Vincennes Saint-Denis, in the suburbs of the capital, just across the Périphérique, a ring road around the city, marking a border between Paris and the rest of the world, a physical border as much as a mental one.

In spite of different governmental programs put in place to erase the border, segregation between people in the capital and those in the suburbs worsened. Even heavily criticized Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who was the main supporter of the bill on worker rights, said in 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo shooting that there is a “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” in France, and “the daily discrimination undergone by those who don’t carry the right name or the right color of skin.”

In light of all of these issues, Nuit Debout has adopted a motto: to merge the struggles.

Merging the struggles came from a leftist journalist, François Ruffin, who released a documentary on blue-collar workers who wanted to meet Bernard Arnault, CEO of the luxury company LVMH (which owns Louis Vuitton, among others) and one of France’s richest men, because they were fired from a textile factory belonging to the luxury group. Ruffin exhorted an impoverished and isolated middle-class bourgeoisie to connect with the workers and the centers with the peripheries.

“Merging struggles” became the name of the organizing committee of Nuit Debout.

***

The protest was over. Rain started to fall. Nuit Debout was about to begin.

A truck arrived at 4:30 pm. Volunteers came to unload it. They spread out across the square to erect a dozen tents, each with a purpose: housing rights, universal revenues, LGBT issues.

At 6 pm, Nuit Debout was ready. The “AG,” the assemblée générale (open assembly), was about to start. These assemblies looked like modern-day agora; dozens of people would attend on bad days, hundreds on good days.

Florent, who doesn’t want to disclose his surname, was volunteering. At 31, the thin, enthusiastic young white man was part of this educated, downgraded middle-class youth.

Whatever the reality was, the perception of a generational downgrade was very strong in France. Florent’s parents’ generation had jobs, social protection, money and opportunities. Florent’s generation — of which 40 percent are university graduates — had less of all of these.

Florent was lucky: He had just found a job after a long period of unemployment. Like the other protesters, he considers the bill too liberal, and the fact that it came from a leftist government was like treason. “I would understand if this bill came from a right-wing government. But I voted for François Hollande in 2012. And nothing good came out of it,” he says. “I don’t know who I’d vote for in the next elections.”

After five years of a socialist government taking measures deemed all but indistinguishable from the right, French leftist voters were in pieces, scattered between centrists, far left, ecologists and right-wing populists. French President François Hollande was by far the most unpopular president of the fifth Republic, put in place in 1958. Like Florent, many of Nuit Debout protesters did not know who to vote for the next presidential election in 2017.

There was a lot to talk about. That was actually the point of Nuit Debout. A doctor denounced the dire conditions of work in Parisian hospitals. One wanted to reform the French educational system, which was deemed “too centralized and creating inequalities.” A young girl wanted to rename the Republique metro station “Republique-Nuit Debout.” A thin, pale man explained the idea of an unconditional basic income. A black man wanted to boycott the next presidential elections, slated for 2017.

Nuit Debout was more about voicing problems rather than —for now, at least — solving them, despite many interesting ideas that came out of this magma day after day.

But despite the euphoria surrounding it, it also attracted criticism.

It was accused of being self-centered, “bobo” (bourgeois-bohême), overwhelmingly white, and focused on social struggles and not on other forms of discrimination — mainly, racism and religious discrimination. Activists from the “banlieues” (peripheries) asked, “Where were you in 2005, when we were confronting the government and the police?” At the time, the banlieues rioted for three weeks after the death of two teenagers, one black and one Arab, being chased by the police. Many cars and buildings were torched. The city centers did not move. A few understood what was happening — myself included. On one side, it was considered a riot, and on the other, a revolt against the system.

Abdoulaye and his friends were dispersing from the square. They were critical of Nuit Debout. “I do not like being lectured by Nuit Debout protesters on social struggles. Half of the students in Saint-Denis University have part-time jobs. They would be the first targeted by the new labour law,” Opélie says. She’s a young strong-willed, black woman with two jobs, one as a group leader for children in a municipality youth center during holidays and one as an employee in a bank on Saturdays.

Nuit Debout was missing another point as well for Opélie: “We realized that the protesters were mainly white. Races was made invisible. As minorities, we are the first victims of these liberal reforms. The protesters have to take racial struggles into account.”

Criticism aside, Nuit Debout was aware of its own defeat.

“I think the bill will pass anyways. The far right is in pieces, and nothing replaced it, at least for now. Police violence is on the rise, with what looks like a tacit consent from the rest of the population,” says Guillaume Mazeau, 40, a history teacher at Paris 1 University.

Yet, spring was in the air, like revolution in the minds: perceptible, but fragile; more an aspiration than a reality. The references to revolutions or, more generally, social movements, are a constant motto in France, where 1789 was a founding moment.

Something was new.

In every demonstration in France, the slogans of May 1968, a massive civil movement in France led by the students, resurfaced: class struggle, call for a general strike. But Nuit Debout was inventing new slogans and new form of mobilizations. Squares being more or less peacefully occupied did not happen for a long time in France — maybe the last occurrence was the Campagne des Banquets, with political meetings taking place all over the country in 1847-1848 against the conservative government at the time. One banquet was prohibited on February 22, 1848, triggering a revolution that ended the monarchy in France.

“It’s been years that French people are complaining about the lack of political awareness. It’s happening now and we were expecting this for a while, maybe since Mai 68. There is a new political culture being shaped on the ground, not out of readings. It’s new. It’s interesting,” says Mazeau. He is a strong supporter of Nuit Debout, and one of the leaders of Debout Education Populaire, an initiative led by a group of university teachers who wanted to create “a space on Republique to debate and share knowledge aside from the scholar or media institutions,” open to anybody.

Two months after, the mobilization is still strong. “Today, we are coming at a juncture. Nuit Debout is not fading away. It’s transforming. Less people are attending the meetings. More people want to take the initiative,” says Mazeau, the sharp middle-aged man covered in stubble, with a slight accent from northern France.

Slowly, the struggles were merging. By the end of May, the Confédération Générale du Travail, a communist syndicate, entered the battle, blocking oil refineries and the French national railway company, paralyzing France just before the 2016 UEFA European Championship.

Today, no one knows where the movement is heading. But this is what I overhead a young man telling another one day as I was leaving the square. “How about organizing Nuit Debout on beaches this summer?”

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Samuel Forey