Wednesday

25th May 2022

The French protest that wants to redefine politics

  • (Photo: Nuit Debout)

French police started to evacuate the Place de la Republique in Paris on Monday morning (11 April) after a protest movement that started there extended to more than 60 towns and cities over the weekend.

But the move is unlikely to stop the protest movement.

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The so-called Nuit Debout movement, which can be translated as "stand up at night", began on 31 March as protest against a labour market reform presented by the left-wing government.


The El Khomri law, named after the labour minister Myriam El Khomri, mainly makes it easier and less costly for employers to lay off staff, and requires workers to be more flexible on working hours.

Inspired by the 2011 Indignados movement in Spain, the Nuit Debout is a makeshift camp where people talk about the reform, but also about politics in general in committees and a "popular assembly".

Music is played, artistic happenings are created and a library has been set up. The Nuit Debout has its own website and media - Radio Debout and TV Debout - and even its own calendar. Today is 42 March.

In a spirit reminiscent of the May 1968 student protest - the reference point for all generations of left-leaning French students - slogans are also everywhere: "We won't go back home", "Don't lose your life earning it" or "Our dreams don't fit in your ballot boxes".

Started in Paris on the Place de la Republique, where people also spontaneously gathered after the Charlie Hebdo killing and the 13 November attacks last year, the movement spread to other big cities and even medium-sized towns, led mainly by young people and students.

Nuit Debout camps were also set up in Belgium in Brussels and Liege, in Berlin and in six Spanish cities including Madrid and Barcelona.

Monday morning's Paris evacuation follows incidents in several cities after demonstrations against the labour-law reform.

Banks and high schools have been damaged. In Paris, protesters tried on Saturday to go to the apartment of the prime minister Manuel Valls but they were blocked by the police.

'Politics is for everybody'

Several politicians asked the government to stop the movement. Former centre-right prime minister Francois Fillon said he was "shocked" that the movement was "tolerated" under the state of emergency imposed after the November attacks.

Last week the centre-left mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, objected to the movement's "privatisation" of the public area.

Criticism from politicians from the left and right is a reflection of the Nuit Debout's opposition to the political parties as a whole.

"Politics is not something for professionals, it is for everybody," the movement's manifesto says.

“The human should be at the core of our leaders' preoccupations. Vested interests have overridden the general interest.”

Nuit Debout has no leader and has been wary of support from any politicians. Instead, it has been wooing trade unions.

However, although the unions are broadly critical proposed labour market reform, they do not seem to be interested in a wider movement that they would have difficulty managing.

Just over a year before the presidential election, Nuit Debout highlights a deep divide within the French left.

The movement has been triggered by the El Khomri law, which many see as a symbol of the "liberal drift" of the government.

A growing part of the left believes socialist president Francois Hollande to be right wing. The state of emergency, the ultimately unsuccessful proposal to strip terrorists with dual citizenship of their French citizenship, and the policy of support to businesses and budget cuts to reduce France's deficit have been considered by many as a betrayal of the left's values.

In an opinion poll last week, just 15 percent said they hoped Hollande stand for another term as president.

Two lefts

The drop in support for Hollande and the Nuit Debout movement suggest that left-wing radicals are looking for an alternative to the socialists. But the movement still lacks organisation.

In a symbolic coincidence, economy minister Emmanuel Macron, a former banker and Hollande adviser who is considered as the spearhead of the economically liberal part of the left, launched his own political movement last week.

Macron said he was from the left but that his movement was neither from the left nor from the right and that he wanted to take France out of its "sclerosis".

The battle to stand as presidential candidate of the left, many believe, will be a fight between the Nuit Debout left and the Macron left.

Even the names give an indication of the opposing views of France's two lefts.

While the "resistance" and alternative movement is called Nuit Debout – stand up at night, Macron's new movement is called En Marche - going forward.

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