A promising new protest movement has emerged in France. Triggered by new labour laws which drastically favour employers, the “Nuit Debout” (ND)—“up all night”—movement started on 31 March with the occupation of a central Paris square after a union-called demonstration. Intended to unite different campaigns, the movement has spread through France, and now constitutes a major pole of opposition to both the Socialist government and the entire business-as-usual of French politics.
In Paris, nightly assemblies have drawn thousands of people for open debates centred around people’s alienation from politics and thirst to end corporate control over democracy. Speeches range from social democratic to clearly anti-capitalist in content. Attacks on the “oligarchy” that runs French politics, calls for a general strike, and discussion about the mechanisms of the protest vote have been prominent topics. Organising on specific issues is devolved to commissions, which have mounted a range of occupations, protests and other interventions, many of them directed against the labour-law reform.
The movement comes during a period of weakness and fragmentation across the political spectrum, including the far left, and against a background of strong distrust of traditional parties and unions. Reactions to ND from the major parties have ranged from contempt and insults to outright condemnation and calls for the movement’s banning. Opponents to the labour law have been the objects of violent police intimidation, both at ND’s own meetings and at the sequence of large demonstrations called by unions since the reform was announced. Mobilisation at these demonstrations has been solid, reflecting the 74 per cent of the public against the law.
In many points, ND resembles recent protest movements like Occupy or Spain’s Indignados, such as its near-consensus (80 per cent) decision-making, or its use of square-occupations as the main organisational form.
Critics have singled out two characteristics especially: the movement’s “horizontality”—its refusal to nominate a leadership or spokespeople—and its reluctance to make specific demands beyond the withdrawal of the labour reform. Both these characteristics are seen by many as counterproductive. ND might not like the traditional structures of spokespeople, political platforms and explicit demands through which movements assert themselves, but it cannot ignore them. If it is to last, it will need to recognise the difference between politicians’ cynical misuse of public undertakings, and the indispensability of spokespeople and demands to any organised social force. Without these it will simply deal itself out of any possible influence.
The movement’s relation to unions is also crucial. While strikes are frequent in France, actual union membership is extremely low, and unions are often seen as just as problematic as the established parties. One union, Solidaires, has helped ND from the start, but others were initially more hesitant. The head of the largest labour union has, however, addressed the ND assembly, and ND was prominent in the traditional May Day march.
Another challenge comes from ND’s relation to poor and immigrant-origin people who live in the depressed suburbs of big French cities. This is a very different demographic from the largely white and middle-class participants in the nightly assemblies. Many people from the suburbs are in long-term unemployment. This means the labour law changes are simply irrelevant, and so not any basis for mobilisation. Conceiving of ways to effectively reach out to this demographic, and to workers, will be important in weeks to come.
Capitalism’s continual attacks on social protections regularly prompt grassroots movements like ND. The risk is that the dynamic these attacks trigger will merely be defensive. If the campaign against labour reform is ultimately won, the political energy ND has crystallised is in danger of evaporating; if the campaign is lost, its lack of a defined broader project means easier demoralisation and demobilisation.
As many ND participants recognise, the challenge is how to coalesce anger about the labour law into mobilisation around a positive political project that isn’t paradoxically dependent for its momentum on attacks from the right. It’s too early to say whether ND will achieve this. In a recognition it doesn’t have the numbers needed for the reform to pass, the government has invoked a constitutional mechanism to bypass parliament and introduce the law directly, as it did with a previous suite of reforms last year. This will make contestation on the street even more important. For ND, a crucial first step will be to shift the focus from providing a place where people excluded from politics can just express their opinions, to one where they can act collectively in the large numbers that have been attending the meetings. If it succeeds in doing this, it will be a major development.
By Nick Riemer in Paris