Nuit Debout: polishing precious stones…

by Denis Godard, translated by Daphne Lawless for Fightback.. Originally published at  Contretemps (

Nuit Debout: polishing precious stones….


The movement occupying public squares in France is two weeks old today. Its evolution is difficult to foresee, as it is influenced by many unpredictable factors, even though it has deep roots. There is also no indication, at the time of writing, if the symbolic occupation of the Place de la Republique in Paris will really be able to endure, nor in what form.

It is a characteristic of movements challenging the dominant order that they do not follow a linear trajectory. On one hand, because their very advances lead to new stakes, new objectives, new questions. So after 15 days of occupation, the movement faces questions of strategy on its relationship to repression, its relationships with movements of struggle, its need for expansion, etc. On the other hand, because after the element of surprise wears off, the dominant order reorganizes. Thus, the powers that be are openly seeking to retake possession of Place de la Republique.  All the major parties, from the [centre-left] Socialists to the [fascist] National Front, are now demanding its evacuation by the police. But this unpredictability is also due to deeper reasons involving the crisis of power, as well as the nature of the movement of which Nuit Debout is one of the forms of expression, and which is developing largely outside traditional frameworks.

1-  A movement which came from nowhere

Nuit Debout is the result of several dynamics: general anger, the more or less underground development of different struggles, the emergence of a general struggle against an anti-social law (the El Khomri law, named after the Minister of Labour, also called the “labour law”) and the decision to occupy Place de la Republique on the evening of 31 March, taken outside traditional channels.

Understanding this does not require the work of a movement archivist. It allows us to anticipate the depth and the capacity for reaction of the movement and indicates trajectories for its future.

General anger against the system and the powers-that-be has been expressed for months in different ways: disaffection with the government, but also disaffection with all the major parties. This anger is not necessarily progressive, when it is expressed by voting for the far right. But it is not unambiguous. It is also expressed by the popularity of Air France workers manhandling their director of human resources (tearing his shirt off) last autumn, or the success of a petition supporting Goodyear unionists sentenced to prison.

And over the past year local and isolated struggles have multiplied in the workplaces, a sign of a return of combativeness after years of decline following the failure of the last big social movement in September 2010. These experiences have helped progressively rebuild combativeness, confidence and the need for a global movement.

Subsequently, the last few months have been marked by specific struggles: a movement of solidarity with migrants, and by occupations resisting major projects of the powers-that-be, notably the airport project at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. It should be noted that, during the weeks before the beginning of the movement against the labour law, two significant demonstrations took place. One, at Calais for open borders, resonated nationally without being massive. The other, at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, united tens of thousands of demonstrators in support, significantly, of the occupation of land by farmers and activists. We must add to this, after the paralysis caused by the terrorist attacks of 13 November, the beginning of a fightback against oppressive policing measures taken by the government.

It is in this context that the government decided to attack workers even harder, with a law dismantling the labour code even further.

2-  A response launched outside traditional channels

The response to this law was launched outside traditional channels, while the trade union leaderships were preparing, once more, to retreat. At the start of this response, a petition demanding the complete withdrawal of the law was launched on social media, obtaining more than a million signatures. Youth organisations then called, on the same basis (the withdrawal of the law), for 9 March to be a day of general mobilization. The welcoming reaction to this response forced the unions to join in, and to call for a national day of strike action and demonstrations on Thursday 31 March. But it was among youth, in the high schools and universities, that the movement found its motor, with regular days of demonstrations and blockades.

On 23 February in Paris, a meeting of convergence of struggles was held around an independent journal associated with the radical left (“Fakir”), economists (notably Frederic Lordon) and casual entertainment workers. In the same period a film called “Merci Patron” (Thanks, Boss!), supported by the same forces, was showing in numerous places, with debates organised after screenings, to sold-out audiences. The meeting at Paris packed a room at the Labour Exchange (the trade union building in the centre of Paris, near Place de la Republique), which even had to close its doors to overflowing crowds! After this success, its initiators called for a meeting of those who wanted to move on to practical action. While about 50 people were expected, more than 200 attended. At this meeting, the idea was launched that on 31 March, after the demonstration, “we won’t go home”! Progressively, the idea spread of occupying a public place at the end of the demonstration. This would become Nuit Debout and the occupation of Place de la Republique.

3-    Nuit Debout is underway!

More than a million people demonstrated on 31 March all over France. Despite the rain, hundreds of demonstrators came to Place de la Republique. An association for the defence of the homeless, Right To Housing, joined the call-out and decided to remain in the square for several days with their tent, at least until the demonstration which they were organising for the following Saturday. And the ball started rolling after Thursday, with more and more people every day. Assemblies were held with thousands of people on Saturday and Sunday. Committees were put in place, debates with freedom of participation. Place de la Republique made the headlines.

On Sunday, the initiators decided to only call for mass occupation of the square on the following Tuesday and Saturday, which were the days for demonstrations. It was in fact difficult to hold on at nights, with only a few dozen hard-core after the closedown of public transport between 1 and 2 am. They felt that it would be even more difficult during the week when people went to work.

But after Monday afternoon, hundreds of people met again in the square and more than a thousand held an assembly that same evening. A demonstration planned for the square in the afternoon even shared the square with a conference which Prime Minister Manuel Valls was holding right next door. Delegations arrived at the demonstration: refugees, casual and precarious workers… The square was held. On Tuesday, after the demonstration, thousands participated in the popular assembly. This was now the case every evening.

And right from that first week, a qualitative leap was made which grew even larger in the second. Multiple committees were organised on themes and areas of activity (for drafting a manifesto, to take care of logistics, to “organise” democracy, to carry out activities, a medical centre, a kitchen, etc.)

To these were progressively added radio, television, a garden (!). Every morning, the police evacuated the square. Every afternoon, with amazing ingenuity, a village of tents, tarpaulins, and wooden pallets was reborn, and thousands of people participated for hours in a popular assembly. Thematic meetings were held in parallel, stalls for associations, publishing houses and alternative bookstores. The hearing-impaired held assemblies in sign language, popular universities took place in the open air, activities for children, poster workshops, legal training, etc.

But above all, in this square, the movement began to avoid one of the possible stumbling blocks: disconnection from the struggle against the labour law. It established links with the movement which had served as its fuel. Contacts were established with places of struggle, university and high-school students of course, but also railway workers, posties, etc. Delegations were organised from the square to workplaces to organise for the demonstration planned for 9 April against the labour law. Added to this were multiple actions organised in the framework of convergence of struggles which left the square, supporting casual entertainment workers, in solidarity with refugees, to “repaint” the storefront of banks or occupy branches of [the major bank] Société Générale, supporting the homeless, etc.

The cherry on the cake: a practice evolved of wildcat demonstrations every evening, especially at night, to go to police stations to retrieve arrested demonstrators, after an action to dismantle the fences preventing refugees from camping in certain areas or, more simply, to go for “a nightcap with Valls”. While the powers-that-be wanted to close off the space for any protest with the proclamation of a state of emergency, the movement reoccupied the space and joyously made it their own.

And the movement spread with the organisation of Nuit Debout and attempts to occupy squares in many other towns, notably after the 9 April demonstration. On various levels, about 60 towns are involved.

4-  Relations with the police

These successes, as well as the repression which the movement attracted (and also sometimes fatigue), now led Nuit Debout to several immediate questions on its future, which were also strategic questions: that of expansion, of its relationship with the movement and of its relationship with the police as well as violence.

The powers-that-be attempted in various ways to put an end to the occupations of squares, and especially that of Place de la Republique, which played a symbolic role. Media attacks began to multiply on the theme: “place of disorder and organisation of violence”. The police attempted progressively, more every day, to retake control over the square. Demonstrations, especially those of youth and wildcat demonstrations, were more and more violently attacked by the police. Two responses arose within the movement.

The first response, which must be challenged on a principled basis, called for the end of violence and proposed, in different forms, making an appeal to the police to join us. This response risks disarming the movement in the face of repression. It must not be forgotten that at the last (regional) elections, the National Front got more than 50% of the vote among the police and army, rising to 70% among cops in active service. The police and the army are at the heart of power, and their direct violence is the practical expression of the violence of ruling class domination. Without a strategy of confronting the police, the movement will have to abandon its gains and, above all, the squares it has occupied. Moreover, promoting the idea that there could be a possible alliance with the police would become an obstacle to the necessary expansion of the movement to working-class neighbourhoods, to migrants, refugees and the undocumented, to radical unionists, all those directly and very concretely affected by police violence.

The second response is that of direct confrontation with the police. This, coming from various sectors, often called “autonomous”, advocates systematic and violent confrontation with the police and even aims to provoke it. Proof of general radicalisation, especially among youth, this attracts more and more young people at the very heart of the demonstrations and draws increasingly wide support, even if passive more often than not. This strategy aims directly at the heart of the State and tends to deny all those mediations by which a majority of society might be drawn into a general confrontation with the ruling class and its State. To organise a direct and systematic confrontation with the police, in all places, could lead not only to marginalising a minority, rendering it easier to suppress, and intimidating the rest of the movement.

But – and this is characteristic of the movement – the dominant ideas and strategies are extremely fluid. An anecdote may illustrate this. This Monday, while the popular assembly was debating these kinds of questions in particular, the riot police tried to prevent a pick-up truck for logistics entering the square. Quickly, several hundreds gathered to push back the cops, who had to retreat from the square under the pressure of numbers and determination. Among those who yelled “Everyone hates the police” and pushed back the cops, some had been complaining a few hours before, saying “the police should be with us”!

5-  The question of expansion

The second question immediately raised is not unrelated to the first. Weakening the capacity for direct repression of the movement requires its extension and dissemination, geographically as well as “socially’ and politically.

Geographical extension through multiplication of Nuit Debout locations. Nuit Debout events have been launched in different cities. As opposed to Place de la Republique, the initiative seems to come much more in this case from organised activists, in particular members of the (more or less) radical left in the broader sense. The future of these initiatives will depend on the capacity of these militants to let themselves be bypassed and to not “channel” the expression of anger.

Social extension, by the development of Nuit Debout in working-class layers and neighbourhoods, which will occur as much through the themes and demands raised than through places of development. This concern is present at Place de la Republique in Paris, in particular, and is very positive. But this will only happen through breaking with every form of paternalism. The working-class neighbourhoods are not “missionary zones” for militants, places without politics. The connection with Nuit Debout can only be made through the motivating force of the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods themselves, and existing networks in these areas. This question is raised in similar terms regarding solidarity with the undocumented and refugees.

Political extension, finally, by the refusal of any “institutionalisation” of Nuit Debout and its objectives. The idea of drawing up a new “Constitution”, raised originally by Frederic Lordon, was rapidly taken up in the assemblies. The seductive aspect of this initiative is the radicalism underpinning it. There would be nothing more to draw from existing institutional frameworks; it would be a matter of refounding real democratic legitimacy “from below”. But there are great risks of a new kind of formalism, forgetting that the rules of a new world cannot be written by a minority, but will be based on the insurrection of a majority. Thus the necessity of political extension to the questions raised in the neighbourhoods, of antiracism, internationalism, struggles against sexism, homophobia and transphobia, etc. Thus the necessity of questions around the role of work, a vector of alienation but also potentially a collective place of struggle and social power.

6-  Relationship with the movement

The dynamic of Nuit Debout is strictly dependent on the movement of struggle and very directly on the struggle against the labour law. This was its first fuel, and an essential fuel. Outside the dynamic of setting in motion, of enlargement, of collective experience and radicalisation, the Nuit Debout phenomenon risks turning in on itself, of losing itself in abstract debates and in minority dead-ends, and/or of falling back, through lack of strength and experience, onto forms of institutionalisation. The risk is there. More than ever, the future of Nuit Debout lies in its capacity to link itself with the struggle against the labour law, to contribute to building a general strike.

Some already spoke of exhaustion and predicted defeat after the demonstrations of 9 April were between two and five times smaller than those of 31 March, even during the high-school and university holidays. But these analyses suffered themselves from the absence of dialectic between the movement of struggle and Nuit Debout. It is significant that it was in Paris, where Nuit Debout is most firmly rooted, that the demonstration against the labour law of 9 April was not significantly weaker than that of 31 March.

On one hand, because Nuit Debout is beginning to potentially represent an alternative “leadership” to the trade union leaderships which retreated, faced with a movement beginning to escape their control and of total confrontation with the government. After 9 April, the trade union leaderships called for a mobilisation… on 28 April. The leadership of railway workers belonging to the CGT [union federation], considered “leftist” (in comparison to the CGT leadership), is now betraying the movement by opposing to it a different “partnership” agenda. The student union UNEF, previously at the forefront, now calls only for intermediary days of mobilisation and congratulates itself on the progress obtained from the government.

On the other hand, because the movement against the labour law is crystallising a much more widespread anger than simply resistance to attacks on labour rights, and any wish to limit this movement to the sole objective of the withdrawal of the law and to channel it will cripple its potential and combativeness. If Nuit Debout depends on the movement of struggle against the El Khomri law, the movement depends on the expression of a global revolt which Nuit Debout is crystallising.

The movement began outside the usual channels. Nuit Debout has substantially extended the possible scope of “outside-channels” activity. If it can link itself more with the more combative forces in the unions, to high-school and university students, it will be able to contribute to a new step beyond the struggle against the labour law, to a strike which would then become a political strike.

7-  The future is not written

While the movement advances and raises these questions, the dominant trajectories of power continue to operate in the direction of reinforcing the police state, in the direction of racism and nationalism, in the direction of social attacks. The monsters are not figments of our imagination, they are really there. One of their forms is the far right. This is also why the trajectory of the movement places it necessarily in radical confrontation with the politics of the ruling class and with the State.

Once more, this confrontation will not progress in a linear manner. The movement will no doubt experience partial defeats and apparent setbacks. Without doubt it will change form more than once. It will sometimes be necessary to know how to change direction in massive and spontaneous flows, to cease beating its head against a wall so as to learn how to demolish or jump over the wall. Sometimes it will depend on initiatives taken by a minority, but which will give a lead to greater numbers.

What is certain is that after years of apparent apathy and advance of all the reactionary tendencies in French society, something has changed which renews hope. The precious stones buried under the hardened lava of previous movements have been brought to the surface by fresh-flowing lava, shining even more brightly.

The times which are coming will be no less hard. But now we are not condemned to take them lying down.

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date: 16/04/2016 – 13:45

Denis Godard 

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