The NuitDebout (Night on Our Feet) movement, which has occupied Paris’s Place de la République for four nights in a row, is not your average French protest, but could it reach the levels of the Occupy or Indignados movements?
NuitDebout started like many other French demonstrations. Student and workers groups who oppose François Hollande’s planned labour reform law, which they say will make it easier for struggling companies to fire workers, organised a protest march on March 31.
But after the march many participants wanted to continue the protest and expand their message. They proposed three nights of occupation in République, which they called March 31st, 32nd and 33rd, and came up with the name NuitDebout to express their defiance. Between 1000 and 2000 people attended each night, according to organisers, although by 8pm on Saturday there were probably a few hundred.
“Most protests in France, we go in the street, we express ourselves and then each of us goes home. It’s a little sad,” one NuitDebout protester explained on Saturday night. “But here [in République] something else is being built.”
“We aren’t on our knees, we aren’t in bed, we’re standing up,” explained a communications spokesperson and initiator of NuitDebout, who asked to be identified as Camille.
Protesters point to diverse motivations for the movement, including the proposed labour reform, popularly known as the El Khomri law; the hit documentary film “Merci, Patron!“, which ridicules France’s richest man, billionaire Bernard Arnault; solidarity with French Goodyear tyre plant workers who kidnapped their bosses in 2014; and objections to the controversial Notre Dame des Landes airport project.
A crowd of Camilles
For now though, NuitDebout protesters are avoiding specific demands. Instead, they emphasise their dissatisfaction with France’s treasured republican ideals, which they see as not truly democratic.
“The people who come here don’t agree with the way the government runs things. The idea is to reconstruct a system that starts with the citizen,” said another protester, who also asked to be identified as Camille.
That’s right, when speaking to the press they all want to be identified as Camille, a gender-neutral first name in French.
But this policy of vagueness and anonymity is strategic. NuitDebout is taking many cues from the Occupy movement in the United States and the Indignados movement in Spain, both of which mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in anti-corporate and anti-austerity protests in 2011 and 2012.
NuitDebout is hoping, as Occupy and Indignados participants did, that a focus on organisation and structure will allow them to build a movement that can sustain itself and be taken seriously in the long run.
“Usually citizens movements [in France] are associated with a political party or a union, but here there’s no flag in the square,” said Camille the communications spokesperson. “It’s completely directed by the citizens.”
Much of their organisational structure is borrowed from the American and Spanish movements: Committees of 30 to 100 people each direct the movement’s communication, logistics, security and entertainment. Major decisions are made at a “general assembly” at 6pm, where anyone can put their name on a list to speak. People show approval by waving, and votes are decided by a simple show of hands. So far there have been two general assemblies, on Friday and Saturday, where the main issue being voted was whether to come back the next night.
The communications committee maintains a stylish social media presence on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. The NuitDebout pages feature attractive anti-corporate graphics that could have been designed by advertising firms, and their posts carefully avoid inflammatory rhetoric.
One member of the communications committee explained that he also works in communications in his professional life.
“A kind of awakening”
There has been a conscious effort to put NuitDebout in an international context alongside Occupy in the United States and Indignados and Podemos in Spain. Spanish headlines and have referred to a “primavera francesa”, or French spring, and social media users frequently put #NuitDebout and #Occupy in the same posts. Camille, the communications spokesperson, said organisers from Spain had come to Paris to advise NuitDebout.
But while the Indignados protests drew about 20,000 people in May 2011, and the Occupy movement gathered between 2,000 and 15,000 protesters in 2011 and 2012, NuitDebout has so far reached at most 1000 to 2000, according to organisers. The general assembly on Saturday night saw only a few hundred.
Marta, a student from Barcelona who lives in Paris now, has participated in both the Indignados and NuitDebout protests, and was at République on Saturday night.
“We see that there’s a kind of awakening of people who are mobilising, but for the moment I think their demands lack precision,” Marta said. “There are lots of groups with lots of demands, but they haven’t converged yet.”
Riot police again showed up at Républque around 5 o’clock Sunday morning. But this time there weren’t enough protestors to disperse. Instead, as people snapped photos that would show up on the NuitDebout Twitter feed the next day, the police took off their helmets, chatted with protesters and smiled.
Discussions in general assemblies are taking place on the whole gamut of social problems in France. Decisions are taken with some elements of Occupy practice with direct democracy and voting by hands raised (but no enforcement of the stifling ‘consensus’ model: “ces suggestions sont votées à la majorité et notées dans un registre”), such as the use of a “moderator” and calls for a clam exchange of views. Unfortunately we note that a series of bizarre ‘ipster’ gestures are used to participate in debates. We strongly suspect the model of the ‘Zadistes’ (French Swampies) at work in importing this practice. (1)
There is a cultural wing, including a “gang of clowns”, and the use of social networks.