Anyone following French politics in recent years should not be surprised by the recent explosion of public protest and resistance across the country.
For years, France has simmered with a combination of a deeply unpopular government, a limping economy and a struggling, fed up populace.
The Paris and Brussels terror attacks, and a growing anti-refugee sentiment, had pushed the anti-austerity fight out of the spotlight for a period. But the underlying economic woes and the democratic deficit have not been resolved and it was only a matter of time before something snapped.
The birth of the Nuit debout movement (often translated as “Up all night”, but more accurately, if less eloquently, as “Night of standing up”) represents perhaps the biggest breakthrough in a new wave of mobilisation against austerity and for grassroots democracy.
The movement began on March 31 after a series of mass demonstrations in response to the government's proposed “El Khomri” laws. If passed, these laws would deregulate France's relatively progressive labour laws.
The laws are ostensibly to help job creation in a country that has been stuck at more than 10% unemployment since 2012. Yet many people see it as part of a discredited austerity agenda — forcing working people to pay for a crisis they did not create and undermining the living standards of ordinary people for the benefit of big corporations.
Starting in the Place de la Republique in Paris, several thousand protestors gathered overnight on March 31 to reclaim a public space in the name of an alternative sense of collective identity to the one peddled by the mainstream.
Self-organising, with no formal leadership but run through a permanent general assembly, these nocturnal communes established their own kitchens, libraries, and discussion circles on various themes (called “commissions”).
The movement now also has its own Radio Debout, Debout TV and Cartoons Debout. Music, poetry, art and free-flowing discussion dominate this new political space.
The explosive revelations of the Panama Papers on April 3 only added fuel to the fire.
Within a few days, the movement had spread to 60 cities in France. Then it spread to other cities across Europe, particularly French-speaking Belgium, but also many cities in Germany, Spain and other countries in the European Union.
Nuit debout is on a “long march” of its own. Each day of April is labelled as continuing the month of March when the protests began: as of writing, we are on Thursday, March 45.
In developments that cannot help but recall the upsurge of May 1968, the youth have inspired further resistance from workers. The dockworkers in Le Havre recently declared that if any more students are harmed by the police, they will block the port.
The French police, notorious for their heavy-handedness, have not acted out of character. Dozens of young protesters have been injured in clashes with police across France since March 31, with police using batons and tear gas on a number of occasions.
Like Occupy Wall Street and Spain's indignados before them, the Nuit debout movement has been criticised for not having a clear set of demands.
This criticism is unfair on two fronts. Firstly, the demonstrators have by-and-large been very clear that they are against corruption, against extreme inequality and austerity, and specifically against the unjust new labour laws. For many, the goal of the Nuit debout movement is to “bring together the different struggles” in French society.
They are for a more responsive democracy, where representatives are less beholden to corporate interests, and where society is run in the interests of the people.
Secondly, it is understandable they do not feel a rush to issue concrete demands at this stage when they are only just emerging from political demobilisation, isolation and division — and feel so betrayed by the mainstream left and the political establishment.
As one participant pointed out: “Basically, it's all the people who have left-wing sympathies but who feel betrayed by left-wing mainstream political parties.”
President Francois Hollande, of the misnamed Socialist Party (PS), is the most unpopular president since records began. His government has deeply alienated its social base through its pursuit of unpopular austerity policies. The PS is set for a complete wipe-out at next year's presidential elections.
Meanwhile, years of internal squabbling between sections of the Left Front — the major political formation to the left of the PS — has rendered it incapable of capturing the imagination of a whole layer of young and disaffected students and workers.
Until recently, much of the discontent with the stagnant and unequal status quo has been channelled by the far-right National Front, which has emerged as the most popular party in France.
What impact this movement will have on the 2017 presidential elections is anyone's guess.
What is clear is that the self-declared candidate “of the left”, Jean-Luc Melenchon, is looking quite out of touch with the French youth.
Launching the Movement for the Sixth Republic early last year, the left-wing firebrand wanted to foment a similar participatory public rebellion that Nuit debout has brought about. But it came across as artificial and too centred on the figure of Melenchon.
Now his presidency bid is looking much too “part of the system” for many of the participants of Nuit debout.
As journalist Daniel Scheidermann suggested: “Even if they no doubt fall on the same side of various arguments as Melenchon, even if they converge for example on the central theme of the necessity of a new constituent, the participants of the Nuit debout are in fact constructing a radical rupture with 'Melenchonism'.”
In this new context of struggle, the non-Melenchon left is attempting to reorganise around a process of “Ideas Primaries” to determine not just a left presidential candidate for 2017, but to forge a new unity of the left, that is connected to the grassroots struggle.
Elected representatives from the Communist Party of France, the Green Party, the left of the governing Socialist Party and the new social democratic party, New Deal, have launched an appeal for a grassroots process of debate and discussion: “We propose that from here until summer across all of France are held open debates in order to allow citizens to express their concerns, their desires and their ideas on themes of their choosing.”
But such a political unification will have an impact only if they make themselves useful to the Nuit debout movement and the El Khomri resistance, rather than assuming such protests will automatically lead to increased support for the political left.
As François Calaret of the political organisation Ensemble! said: “In this situation, the political forces of the left who have for several months critiqued and contested the politics of the government, have the responsibility to put themselves at the service of this large popular movement and to find the means to overcome divisions.”
The Nuit debout movement is still expanding its scope, despite police repression. That is especially impressive given that it is taking place in defiance of new police-state laws introduced after the Paris attacks in November last year.
As with Occupy and the indignados before it, it will face the question of what to do next after the initial wave of occupations either becomes impractical, or the movement wishes to go beyond it.
Many are aware of this issue. As one participant said: “It's also a question of knowing how to move forward. We do not want to be like Occupy Wall Street, a movement that fell in love with itself.
“We need to structure ourselves in order to win any initial victories. The occupation is not an end in itself.”
Whatever the next steps are, Nuit debout has helped shift the terrain of French politics and the establishment are on the back foot.
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