Nuit Debout: an overview of the French movement

Nuit Debout has been gathering hundreds of citizens in Paris during the past weeks. Now, the civic movement has spread to other French cities, as well as to Belgium, Spain, and Germany, among other locations. Last weekend, I decided to make a few phone calls in order to try and explain to all Europeans out there what is going on in France since the 31st of March, 2016. Here is my humble (and rather long, sorry) summary.

At first sight everyone –including our Government, thought it started with the Labour Law reform. Indeed, thousands of people marched against the new "Code du Travail" (labour laws) on March 31, demanding that the Government withdraws the reform. The new laws mainly concern youth unemployment and temporary contracts, which is why all trade unions and all student federations went on strike and protested. Nevertheless, already after a few emails and phone calls, I had to face the truth: the new labour law was only the tip of the iceberg.

Nuit Debout was created on the grounds of the failed COP21, the emergency measures taken after the terrorist attacks (November 13) as well as the attempt to add the loss of citizenship as part of the Constitution. People gathering for the Nuit Debout movement decided to deliberately challenge and oppose the state of emergency. "We are not afraid and now we are gathering everywhere whereas it’s forbidden", said Bérengère, from Toulouse. In Paris, Joseph explained how some riot squad officers ended up discussing with the demonstrators instead of kicking them out of the Place de la République, one morning: "they’re as tired of this situation as we are, actually".

It is important to know that due to the state of emergency, the Army should be in charge of desmantling the Nuit Debout camps. The Government decided to send the riot squad instead and the relations between the demonstrators and the riot police are rather peaceful apart from a couple of incidents.

You probably wonder why all these people are giving up some of their precious sleeping time. After all, they could perfectly gather in some pubs on Sunday afternoons and discuss about French politics in a cosier way, right? They could, indeed.

Most of the people I talked to laughed when I asked them "why?". Christoph, from Strasbourg answered that he has been waiting for this to happen in France for the past 20 years; Joseph from Paris just wants a better and more democratic world for his kids. Gérald from Marseille and Bérengère from Toulouse both had the same reasons: reclaiming democracy, reclaiming their rights as citizens. Joe, from Martinique, is just extremely disappointed by the Government. They’re all tired of all the useless strikes and demonstrations. This time, they wanted to do something different by "creating the space we always should have had –and lost a few years ago, for debates and discussions with every and anyone who wants to join" (Gérald, Marseille).

In Martinique (French island located between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean), people are also following the Nuit Debout movement, for the same reasons: for democracy, against corruption, for the environment, against the financial world, for more and better equalities, against the current failed system and government. Nuit Debout also has an echo in the current ongoing strike paralysing Mayotte since the end of March.

What do all these people do during these nights?

Lots of workshops and general assemblies are organised throughout the night, with new topics every night. Concerts, street performances, planting vegetables, foodtrucks are also on the programme. It has been described as a group therapy by many media and it is very accurate. It is a huge one.

Among all the workshops organised during these "Nuits Debout", there is one about drafting a new French Constitution in almost all cities. The 5th Republic has been criticised a lot over the past few years. During the 2012 presidential elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche (Left Front), clearly demanded that a 6th Constitution would be drafted and implemented.

Other workshops are discussing about environmental issues, labour laws, education, culture, economy, gender equality and many other topics.

What about Europe, then? What do these people think about the European Union? After all, we’re talking about an essential and founding member state of the EU where the eurosceptic party (Front National) is gaining more votes at every election…

"We don’t really talk about it, we don’t really hear people talking about it", answered most of the people I talked to. However, when asked what they, as individuals, thought about it, they all had the same answer. According to them, the current EU project is failing. The reasons for this failure is the lack of democracy: the European Parliament should have more power, for instance. However they would never attempt to simply destroy it: "we want to re-create it, to make it better, a Europe of the People instead of the Nations". The idea of uniting all European citizens is definitely something Nuit Debout stands for. That’s probably why other European countries are now joining the movement. Nuit Debout is gathering people in Spain, Belgium, Italy, Germany… "Europe was waiting for the French people to finally wake up for years, we’re some sort of leading country within the European Union and Italians, Greeks and Spanish people are extremely happy to see us demonstrating like that." explained Christoph, from Strasbourg.

The refugee crisis, a European topic, was at the heart of Bérengère’s motivation when she decided to join the movement : "the way France handles refugees, in the Calais Jungle for instance, is just revolting and disgusting, I can’t let my country do that without reacting".

Is the youth finally waking up in France?

At the Nuit Debout events, you will probably see lots of young people. The youth has been severely hit by the 2008 crisis in France. However, of all of the people I talked to for this article, only one was below 30 years old. "We could say it’s a kind of conflict between generations, but it’s not the youth against the elderly, it’s a bit like our generations doing their teenage crisis and we want to create something new, different from what the previous generations did", explained Joseph (31, Paris).

What do these people want, in the end?

In France, most people voted for the Front National out of boredom or anger in the last regional elections. The French people are angry because whatever they say, think or do, the Government (current, past, upcoming) doesn’t listen to them. Once again, the President was talking to himself during his so called "meeting with the French people" on Thursday evening (April 14).

The truth is, the past 6 months have been terrifically difficult for everyone in France due to the terrorist attacks (both in January and in November). The state of emergency has been uninterrupted since November 14, 5 months ago. When the Government announced a new law without discussing it first with the concerned parties (labour unions and student federations among others), it was just the final straw. People took to the streets and when everyone thought they’d go home and calm down, they decided to keep demonstrating all night long. Hence, the movement spread and grew unusually fast. It quickly became an organised movement with the help of tens of common citizens, as well as a few "Indignados" who came over to support this movement as soon as they heard about it.

There are no boundaries among people in this movement and discussing with some people who are behind the organisation of a few events made me realise they might be right: France and perhaps Europe won’t be the same at all after Nuit Debout.

What’s coming next? They have no idea: "We’ll see. We’re not going to lie to you, we have no idea how far this movement will go and what will be its direct consequences. But we’re sure there will be consequences. We’re hopeful and optimistic."

They are not protesting against something. They are using public space to organise themselves and make practical, tangible proposals to the Government, or anyone who’s willing to listen to them.

Maeva Chargros

Photo credits: Nuit Debout, Nicolas Vigier, Flickr, public domain.