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Nuit Debout: “It did not take off”, Frédéric Lordon.

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Nuit Debout: A Spark that did not Light a Prairie Fire.

Nuit debout was a French movement that began on 31 March 2016, arising out of protests against proposed labour reforms known as the El Khomri law or Loi travail. The movement was organised around a broad aim of “overthrowing the El Khomri bill and the world it represents”. It was compared to the Occupy movement in the United States and to Spain’s anti-austerity 15-M or Indignados movement. Occupy, and its much smaller imitation in the UK, Like the former, and unlike the latter, it failed to make any lasting connection with wider political forces. 

Nuit Debout was best known for its months long 2016 occupation of the Place de la République in Paris.

Organisers refused to set out a specific list of political demands in advance, although they did denounce the government’s proposed reforms as regressive, and they called for the construction of a new political project that would be “ambitious, progressive, and emancipatory”.

Lordon played an instrumental role in the rise of the Nuit debout movement. He wrote a piece in the February 2016 issue of Le Monde diplomatique on François Ruffin‘s film, Merci patron!, describing the film as a clarion call for a potential mass uprising. This prompted Ruffin to organise a public meeting which led to the organisation of the public occupation of Paris’s Place de la République on 31 March 2016. Lordon delivered a speech at the 31 March protest, highlighting the goal of uniting disparate protest movements. He subsequently refused to talk to national media about his role in the movement, explaining that he did not wish to be seen as the leader of a leaderless movement. More Frédéric Lordon, Nuit Debout ‘Leader’: Diamond Geezer, or….Not?.

Lordon has also been criticised for his ‘soverigentist’ tendencies: that is a belief that French democracy must first be transformed,  however grass-roots led – on a national scale. This means he is against the pooling of sovereignty in the European Union, attacking its ne-libeal and amrket inflection but   offers no concept of how internationalist democracy may be built. (1)

A more radical critique is offered of this type of politics in the latest Red Pepper,

Occupations, assemblies and direct action – a critique of ‘body politics’ Joseph A Todd .

Todd argues that the demand for “presence” at such assemblies (Occupy Wall Street, London, the small camp at St Paul’s, the  Place de la République), is questionable.

Inclusion in the polis was premised on physical presence – both in that decision making was conducted in general assemblies for extended periods of time, but also in that non-participation in the general assembly constituted a symbolic exclusion from the performative spectacle that became the symbol of the movement. And while the lack of demands was partly rooted in a distrust of existing institutions, we can also trace it back to body politics, the belief that bodies together is enough to create change, that bodies in space could prefigure the revolution.

Others have criticised the “consensus” ideal of these movements, which excludes serious debate, and represses minorities, while allowing for a fictitious agreement to be manipulated by an unacknowledged and unaccountable  leadership – the “tyranny of structurelessness”.  Or, more simply, the offputting rules that govern these assemblies, including strange signs to signify intervention in discussions, agreement, or disagreement. Nuit Debout did not enforce consensus – voting was by majority – but adopted many of these alienating procedures.

Nuit Debout existed for some months, brought important issues about the effects of markets, and the failings of democracy in French society and Europe  to the fore, had some interesting debates about democratic structures and the remoteness of official French politics, and inspired some to continue to seek an alternative to liberal pro-market politics.

It never touched the core of the labour movement or the banlieue.

Now we learn that Lordon, still one of the leading voices in the movement, acknowledges it has failed to take hold.

Frédéric Lordon fait le bilan de Nuit Debout : “On ne va pas se raconter d’histoire, le feu n’a pas pris”

la puissance de la multitude” – the might of the multitude has not taken off.

The Bondy Blog interview is in a typical, highly abstract and philosophical vein,  complete with references to Spinoza (one hears echoes of Toni Negri here, as the term multitude suggests already), and La Boétie.

It is heavy going, even for those used to Lordonese.

Fortunately Les Inrocks summarises the key points in which Lordon assesses the successes and the – very evident – petering out of the movement:

Tous les mouvements insurrectionnels commencent à très petite échelle. Le problème pour le pouvoir c’est quand ‘ça gagne’, quand la plaine entière vient à s’embraser. On ne va pas se raconter d’histoire, le feu n’a pas (ou pas encore) pris. Je crois cependant que beaucoup de gens qui étaient loin de l’événement l’ont regardé avec intérêt, et qu’il s’est peut être passé quelque chose dans les têtes dont nous ne pouvons pas encore mesurer tous les effets.”

All insurrectional movements begin small scale. The problem for those in power is when this “takes off”, when the social terrain is swept up in their heat. I am not going to hide the fact that in this case the spark has not (or has not yet) caught fire. I consider nevertheless that many people who were distant from the event watched it keenly, and what took place inside our heads has had effects which we have not really come to grips with yet.

Lordon talks of the “violence des “gardiens de l’ordre” which radicalised the participants in Nuit Debout. But he denied that there was any link between the movement and the ‘casseurs’ (hooligans) who led attacks on the Police and property to demonstrations in France earlier this year, and who provoked a strong counter-reaction.

 The Inrocks also cites Nuit debout, l’instant d’après. Pour un bilan qui n’en soit pas un by .

This is a more intelligible and serious balance-sheet (bilan) of the movement.

Marzel celebrates Nuit Debout’s existence in an “oligarchic regime” and presence in the ” imaginaire politique alternatif”, its democratic experiments, and – apparently – resistance to “narcissism”  as victories in themselves. It did not, however, help stop the new Labour law. And, “Nuit debout s’est rapidement élargie à une contestation de toute la politique du gouvernement et à un rejet global du capitalisme mondialisé.” – it quickly expanded to challenge all the government’s policies, and a complete rejection of globalised capitalism.”

Manzel does not hide that there problems with sexism, intoxication, internal disputes, inside Nuit Debout. Yet he considers that core message of  of the protests was part of the “Miracle” of politics in the sense celebrated by Hannah Arendt.  That is, we might comments,  creative action and reflection by equal citizens that breaks  governmental routine and helps create free public realm.

While some may hope that a new wave of protests may arise in France this autumn Nuit Debout has reached some kind of terminus.

*****

 (1) “Frédéric Lordon offers a radical critique of the construction of Europe. We can only agree when he interprets ‘the oddity of building Europe as a gigantic operation of the political elimination … of popular sovereignty itself’. The Enchanted World of Common Currency – On the Article by Frédéric Lordon).

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