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Vive la révolution: demonstrators gather in Place de la République, Paris, for a nocturnal sit-in on April 2
Nuit Debout’s call to action
April 21, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from CADTM -- Since 31 March, we are settled on Republic square (in Paris) and on many other places everywhere throughout France.
Our mobilisation was initially aimed at protesting against the French Labour Law. This reform is not an isolated case, since it comes as a new piece in the austerity measures which already affected our European neighbours and which will have the same effects as the Italian Job Acts or the Reforma Laboral in Spain. This concretely means more layoffs, more precarity, growing inequalities and the shaping of private interests. We refuse to suffer this shock strategy, notably imposed in the context of an authoritarian state of emergency.
The debates taking place in the assemblies on Republic square prove that the general exasperation goes way beyond the Labour Law and opens a more global issue: the reconsideration of a social and political system stuck into a deep crisis and on its way out. We will not be the ones crying because of its end.
This movement was not born and will not die in Paris. From the Arab Spring to the 15M Movement, from Tahrir Square to Gezi park, Republic square and the plenty of other places occupied tonight in France are depicting the same angers, the same hopes and the same conviction: the need for a new society, where Democracy, Dignity and Liberty would not be hollow shells.
Supporting testimonies received from abroad warm us and strengthen our commitment. This movement is yours too. It has no limit, no border and it belongs to all of those who wish to be part of it. We are thousands, but we can be millions. Together, standing, awake. Let’s rise up together.
The #40mars (9 of april), organise your #Nuitdebout
Press contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Rising up together
By Nina Léger
April 21, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Transform! --
On 31 March during the protest against the El Khomri law (France’s new labour law), a few protesters handed out flyers which read Nuit debout (“rising up at night”), echoing La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude: “Tyrants appear great only because we are on our knees”. That same evening, people were invited to gather on place de la République where François Ruffin’s film Merci Patron! was to be screened and discussed. The evening’s motto: “Tonight, nobody goes home”. It had rained heavily during the whole protest. Everyone was drenched and everything was soaking wet. Despite that, several thousand citizens made it to place de la République and stayed on.
Several thousand people rediscover their civil dignity
Primarily, this type of event – where participants witness free speech in action and see such a large group of people willing to come together – creates a feeling of amazement. All activists (in the broadest sense) experience this when, for the first time, they feel like they are many and can have an impact. They aren’t university classmates or colleagues who decided to take action: they are people who do not know each other but who come together, exchange ideas, make decisions and act collectively. An internet user tried to gauge the number of people passing by place de la République on a daily basis and his estimation was 10,000. Even though this figure should be considered with caution, there is no doubt that every day, several thousand people rediscover their civil dignity during Nuit Debout.
Since that first night, the square has more or less been constantly occupied. After numerous demonstrations, it has become the starting point for a completely new and growing movement where party activists looking for change meet disillusioned citizens, non-voters, blank ballot defenders, etc., many of them experiencing for the first time the profusion, the richness as well as the mess that characterise grass-roots movements.
Things are different here
For others, this is a moment of rediscovery. There are many organised activists present, be they independent, from the Left Front or the New Anticapitalist Party, trade unions, community organisations, etc. They first look at each other in an aloof and amused manner. These activists feel – sometimes rightly – more experienced than others, and their political and organisational maturity means that they perceive the early stages of this assembly as funny and naive. But most of those who decide to stay, who sit with others and take part in the discussions, rapidly change their tone. At that point, we realise that having more advanced organisational skills also, to a certain degree, prevented us from discussing the various forms such organisation can take. We are used to set ways of discussing things where rules cannot be changed and therefore are rarely questioned. Things are different here. Everybody talks about everything and repeats what has already been said, but people also take risks and action. Whoever cares about such or such issue can stand up, write a corresponding committee name on a sheet of paper, sit on the square and start discussing the subject with others – and just like that a new committee is born. There is a poetry committee, a manifesto committee, an economic policy committee... They keep on coming, regardless of whether they will survive, or whether they will produce results. And it is precisely because nothing is expected from them at this stage that they can be created and grow so easily.
Where does this movement stop?
This leads us on to one of the issues associated with developments on the square: where does this movement stop? And, more precisely, is the fact that it still has neither a structure nor a goal an obstacle, as we are so often told? The gap between drafting a constitution and protesting against labour law is huge and nothing seems to be clear-cut. The same thing can be said about creating committees or organising events or actions. Many people are raising their voices on the issue. The fear of appearing like a conventional party or a trade-union movement is nuanced by a willingness to join, on a larger scale, other social struggles. The rejection of politics is there but it is by no means omnipresent, and it often seems to result from a form of trepidation towards anything political – we will not do “that thing” we are so often excluded from – and/or from a semantic ambiguity: everything that is said or done is eminently political, starting with reclaiming public spaces. And yet, you hear people say that we need to write a new constitution without “sinking” into politics.
Desire for horizontality
On the square, this need for structure sometimes seems to become an aim in itself, even prior to identifying the movement’s goal. In fact, many of those who have been there since the beginning can no longer stand to hear the same things over and over again said by a multitude of different people every day. But by focusing on this need, the debates sometimes become tense and tend to be reduced to the age-old argument between those who advocate complete horizontality and those who see the need for a more organised structure. Even though this argument can sometimes be sterile – when, for instance, a discussion cannot happen because no rules have been defined – it is also a central question (amongst so many other questions) on which not only the future of the movement will depend, but also the creation of a new form of democracy, redesigned by thousands of researchers in this gigantic lab.
An organisational culture that is more than a century old, as far as political parties and trade unions resulting from the workers’ movement are concerned, still has a lot to learn from a ten-day-old movement, and vice versa. And it is because Nuit Debout protesters are aware of this that they use the pronoun “we” and are trying to move forward together. After all, who knows the strengths and weaknesses of our structures better than organised activists? Everything we know in our organisations – things that can sometimes be hard work, intimidating, hard to tackle, complicated or that don’t allow activists to be completely involved on a political level – all of that needs to be thought through and questioned in light of what is happening on the place de la République. We need to think about this desire for horizontality – probably one of the words heard most often on the square – and the possibility to reclaim political speech because people feel they have a legitimate right to do so here. Do our existing organisational mechanisms allow us to satisfy these aspirations? Do our methods fit the increasing number of communication and decision-making tools of our time?
The whole system of political representation, and not only the labour law, is being discredited
On the square, many people are keen to discuss things and make decisions. Of course, this isn’t a complete novelty, but here the sense of willingness is very strong. And how can this come as a surprise when citizens feel, at best, like they are not being represented by politicians and, at worst, betrayed? How can this come as a surprise when such feelings are based on facts, most importantly the fact that the French voted the Left into power four years ago? The justice of a class system that allows people like Patrick Balkany (a French politician accused of tax evasion and money laundering) to escape jail and puts a mother who steals to feed her children behind bars; the impunity of white-collar criminals, politicians or bankers; the well-known collusion between the latter two; the social homogeneity in politics... All of these are not the actions of a handful of people but the system as a whole. And this system marginalises a shockingly high number of people. It is therefore logical that this whole system of political representation, and not only the labour law, is being discredited. The search for maximum horizontality is shared by the majority and is predominantly discussed in debates.
How do we create a democratic space that would involve as many people as possible?
It is important to highlight that things have never been that easy on the technical front. Citizens who are competent in the field are currently trying to create digital tools in order to extend the debate online. A few have already been set up, such as https://chat.nuitdebout.fr/home and https://wiki.nuitdebout.fr/wiki/Accueil. On the square, people are talking about how to bring these discussion spaces together. We can also be certain that Nuit Debout has a lot to teach us on this subject.
How do we create a democratic space that would involve as many people as possible in its tangible construction as well as its actions and decisions? This is the question that needs to be answered. Admittedly, not being able to see past structural issues can seem like an obstacle. But besides the fact that this issue is not unusual for a mobilisation that has lasted only two weeks, this question can actually be seen as preliminary to all others that follow: the content of discussions will depend on the importance given to each and every one of us, and creating a framework together is the only way to ensure the greatest possible involvement. This new, horizontal way of debating and taking action and the coming together of thousands of people to think collectively is something worth learning from as much as it is worth participating in. Why? Because this is where we belong; because these goals are the reasons why we decided to become involved politically; because we are fighting precisely in order to give a voice and power back to the people – and, lest we forget, we too are the people. That is the reason why we can say “us” when we talk about the citizens gathered on the square, and we will not be able to reinvent the world without this plural “we”, which encompasses a large group of diverse and creative individuals.
Reflections on 'Nuit Debout'
By Denis Godard
April 20, 2016 -- Original published in at Contretemps under the title "Nuit Debout: polishing precious stones…". Translated by Daphne Lawless for Fightback and reposted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- The movement occupying public squares in France is two weeks old today [April 16]. 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.