Wednesday, 20 April 2016 09:57

Why the French youth decided to take to the streets

Written by Justine Olivier
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Photo: Nicolas Vigier(Flickr); Licence: CC0 1.0

It all started on the 31st of March. At 6pm, hundreds of individuals, mostly, but not exclusively, young people gathered at the  symbolic Place de la République in Paris. They set up tents, sat down, and discussed until the early morning, cleaned up and left peacefully. And then they came back the following day, and every night ever since.

The Nuit Debout movement, or "Up all night", was launched by François Ruffin, director of Merci Patron!, a documentary mocking and criticizing the wealthy French businessman Bernard Arnault. The movement started as an extension of the protest movement against the proposed reform of French labour law, announced by the Minister of Labour Myriam El Khomri last February. This protest has become a positive movement, one encouraging citizens to make their voices heard. These 'nights out' are genuine democratic forums, inviting everyone to speak for a limited amount of time on topics ranging from the refugee crisis to abortion and tax evasion. The organization is leaderless,but various committees have sprung up to help organise the movement in the long run, and it has now spread to sixty French cities and towns. It has even crossed borders, affecting Belgium and Spain.


All these characteristics recall the "Occupy" movements that spread across the United States and a few European countries, especially Spain, in 2011/2012. Both movements define themselves through individuals peacefully occupying public places to debate various social and political  issues with the aim of reinventing democracy and reclaiming power from traditional parties and political elites. 

The fate of the Occupy movements, which slowly died down or transformed  into political parties such as Podemos in Spain, does not bode well for Nuit Debout. As Andrea, a participant of many of the Paris sit-ins put it: “If you say Nuit Debout will become the French Podemos, the French Syriza, you’re condemning it to failure, because they failed. That would be a huge shame.” Rhetoric like this underlines the contradictions inherent in these movements, which are doomed either to remain offbeat and  and slowly die down, or to enter the political establishment they despise in order to have significant political impact. 

What will be the future of Nuit Debout? Right now, it's hard to say, and the government has been very careful in its handling of the situation. There have been a few scuffles with the police but overall, this has been minimal, as  the government demanded them to use caution. Despite  the state of emergency, which is still in place since the Paris attacks and which bans public gatherings, the movement was declared legal by the Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Valls said in an interview with left-wing newspaper Libération, “We should not complain that young people are gathering, acting and dreaming of collective action. It’s a sign that French society is full of life.” 

However, the general mood changed with the "Finkielkraut incident", when the conservative French critic,Alain Finkielkraut, tried to attend the event in order to listen, and potentially discuss ideas, but was violently expelled by protesters who told him to "get lost". For an allegedly democratic movement, this is an undeniable and significant fault, which dramatically undermines its legitimacy. As Finkielkraut pointed out, there is no possible debate with people who chase someone without letting him speak. Several right-wing politicians seized this opportunity to condemn the movement, and the government stepped in to criticize the movement, as Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said that "limits have been crossed". Finkielkraut is a divisive intellectual, whose positions on identity and immigration anger most left-wingers, especially among young people. But whatever opinion the participants have of his ideas, the violence with which they rejected him only shows intolerance and sham democratic values. 

The movement also came in for criticisms for its lack of prospect. The  “Nuitdeboutistes” have no precise set of goals and demands. What gathers the participants is a general “ras-le-bol” (A French expression which can be translated as a mix of despondency and anger), the feeling of being left out and ignored by a  “supposedly” socialist government, and a strong desire to jettison capitalism and its inequalities. This is what threatens to curtail the leverage the movement will have. Indeed, this lack of a consistent program, or at least of a restricted list of topics, precludes any substantial political response from the government and would render the formation of a united political party extremely complicated, if that were to become the destiny of the movement.


That said, more than the potential long-term future of the movement, it is what La Nuit Debout says about French society that really matters today.

Nuit Debout epitomizes the deep dissatisfaction with the current government. The main reason why the Occupy movements only dimly affected France back in 2011 was that people clung on the opportunity of electing a socialist president in 2012, who, they hoped, would listen to the people and relieve their sufferings. President Hollande’s failure to reduce the unemployment rate and his attempts to implement liberal/conservative economic laws however led him to muster general disappointment and bitter resentment. With a presidential election coming up in about a year, the rise of La Nuit Debout illustrates the predicament the embattled socialist party is in.


More broadly, this unrest is symbolic of the widespread impression among the people, and especially young people, that politics is no longer solely the preserve of traditional political parties, who appear to be disconnected from reality and unable to let people express themselves directly. People now seek genuine grassroots moves in which they can have direct input. This shift away from traditional parties can also be exemplified by recent attempts to distance themselves from the usual right/left alternative. This is embodied by the young and dynamic current Economic Minister Emmanuel Macron, who has announced the launch of his movement En Marche!, whose main characteristic is to be  “neither on the right nor on the left”. This disavowal of political orthodoxy may have become a required feature to attract young and disillusioned voters.


Whatever the future of the Nuit Debout movement, its rise and popularity among young people suggests that the current French political system is running out of steam. The failure of Hollande to deliver on his promises have ignited a movement characterised by its distrust in the traditional parties and its yearning for an alteration to the current worn-out system. It is too early to tell the future of Nuit Debout, but the incident with Finkelkraut and the hail of criticism that followed dealt a blow to its legitimacy and sapped its prospect of becoming a reliable, consistent and influential alternative force in French politics. 


Last modified on Wednesday, 07 September 2016 07:48

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