Photo by Nicolas Vigier via
This article originally appeared on VICE France
So far, every time I’ve attended a Nuit Debout protest, I’ve left feeling a little disappointed. The few times I’ve been, it seemed more like a big gathering of lost hippies than a genuine protest movement. But, at the same time, I’m well aware that the people who make up Nuit Debout do it for the right reasons.
Nuit Debout is a movement of daily anti-capitalist protests that started on March 31 this year on the Place de La République in Paris. The movement is a reaction to the breakdown of the social and economic situations in France over the past few years. But what lit the flame of the protests was the announcement of a new labour law by French Minister of Labour Myriam El Khomri, which protesters saw as the end of the protection of the French worker.
The Nuit Debout movement is reminiscent of Occupy and similar protests that have spread around the world in the past few years—like the Indignados movement of the Puerta del Sol in Madrid in 2011 and the 700 Euro Generation at Syntagma Square in Athens. Like a lot of these movements, Nuit Debout wants to organize itself organically, without a leader. At their general assemblies you mostly find militant supporters of the Leftist Front and the Green Party, unionists, community activists, and students. The protesters want to work within a direct and horizontal democracy and don’t just oppose the new labour law, but also the current political institutions and economic system in general. Nuit Debout has spread to other towns in France and has even popped up in Belgium, Spain, Germany, and Portugal.
Photo by Nicolas Vigier via
In theory, the political and social nature of Nuit Debout—like its aspirations to horizontal democracy—is the essence of the movement. But in practice, that also makes it unclear what its direction is; you’d be forgiven for asking whether it really is a new revolutionary movement or just an idealistic flashmob. The hundreds of people who have gathered every night since late March are, for the time being, not making a concrete impact on anything. When Le Figaro—the most read right-wing media outlet in the country—asked its readers whether they thought the Nuit Debout movement was going to last, 67 percent of them gleefully said that it wouldn’t. In the same paper, the author of the book Don’t help yourself, the state will help you, wrote an op-ed titled “Nuit Debout: Dawn of the hipsters”.
I went back to Place de la République to see what the atmosphere was like a couple of weeks after the demonstrations started. Basically, the Nuit Debout protesters are mainly white high school kids and university students, passive revolutionaries, progressives, humanists, and some actual misfits. Walking around, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the young people who are suffering the most because of the current French system aren’t participating in this movement. For now, it’s all pretty calm—there isn’t necessarily a sense of revolution in the air.
The protest area is split in two: there’s a speaker’s corner on one side, where people participate in a political open-mic session of sorts. The other side mostly reminds me of a circus. There are slackliners, am-dram actors putting on a politically charged show, a fire breather, jugglers, and circle drummers. The dividing line between these two spaces is made up of some kids picnicking on the concrete.
In the speaker’s corner, people were trying to right all the wrongs in the world, but it became immediately clear that there are a lot of wrongs to right—too many, perhaps, to be dealt with by a relatively unorganized group of street protesters.
At the center of the square people wandered about like they were at a festival, stopping here and there to have a grilled sausage or watch bit of a play. In the speaker’s corner, people were trying to right all the wrongs in the world, but it became immediately clear that there are a lot of wrongs to right—too many, perhaps, to be dealt with by a relatively unorganized group of street protesters. Some speakers were fighting for women’s rights, others argued we should have a democracy without political parties, and some were demanding an end to people being dicks to each other on the subway. Which is fine, of course, because they’re all noble causes.
But this broad range of demands is also what could limit the impact of the movement, given that such a splintered message won’t keep people in power up at night. Nuit Debout reveals a political problem: it’s a gathering of people who want to make a point about this political issue—but it’s still mostly just a political awakening, not a revolutionary force.
That doesn’t mean that Nuit Debout isn’t an important social space, of course. From what I saw and heard, the El Khomri Law is a constant topic of discussion on the square. But what really binds people together is the general frustration at the right-wing policies of the supposedly left-wing government of President Hollande.
Photo by Maya-Anaïs Yataghène via
In a televised interview on September 9, 2012, François Hollande set a goal for himself: to reverse “the trend in unemployment within a year.” But in 2014, unemployment had risen to over 5 million people in mainland France alone. This year, unemployment has gone up again. Young people are hurt most by this trend—one in four French people under 24 are out of work.
Hollande is not yet at the end of his first term, but a big chunk of his supporters on the left—workers, civil servants, and people under 30—feel that he’s turned his back on them. Young people and working class voters in areas where support for the Communist Party used to be a given are now collectively voting for the far-right Front National.
French voters on the left feel Hollande has had a socio-liberal change of heart and abandoned his left-wing values—for example, when he canceled €30 billion ($33 billion) in social charges or when he planned a €50 billion ($56 billion) cut in public spending. Voters feel he has been prioritizing support of businesses over supporting the middle classes, further alienating himself from French socialism.
On top of that, Hollande took various controversial security measures after the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. His bill around taking away French nationality from potential terrorists was the most problematic for many within the French left; the same suggestion was made directly after the attacks by right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Front National leader Marine Le Pen.
Given the anger and disappointment concerning this government’s policies, it’s no surprise a movement like Nuit Debout has emerged. It’s easy to scoff at the theater productions and the drum circles, but at least these people are actually taking to the streets to make their opinions heard. I know too many young people who identify as leftist but who, in reality, are apolitical bums, mostly concerned with their personal development, success, and finances. I’m one of those people, actually. A generation of apolitical bums never changed anything, so it’s great news that a new generation is standing up for what they believe. And if that involves some juggling, so be it.