Nuit Debout, in Paris and Beyond, “Something is happening”


On this sunny late afternoon in Paris, the skaters gradually have to give way to the hundreds of people coming to the Place de la République to take part in the general assembly of Nuit Debout. Like every other evening since 31 March, the same ritual is repeated in Paris, other cities across France (Strasbourg, Rennes, Lille, Nantes, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse...) and even abroad (Berlin, Brussels, Madrid).

A week after the movement began, on the weekend of 9-10 April (renamed 40-41 March in reference to the initial night-time sit-in), over a thousand people had taken over the square by around 6 in the evening. It has been turned into a makeshift camp, with stands made from pallets and canvas sheets.

“We debate, we discuss, we exchange, we dream, we deconstruct, we reconstruct. Long live us!” proclaims one of the many slogans and poems written in chalk on the ground. Between the smoke from the Nuit Debout canteen and the kebab stands making the most of a great business opportunity, the atmosphere is joyous but also studious.

All afternoon, volunteers have been in committee, sat in small groups on the large grey flagstones, forming “talking circles”. Everyone is able to take part and even to propose the creation of a committee, either to organise the movement (logistics, camp, welcome…), or to discuss fundamental issues (economics, politics, environment, European model, agriculture…).

The debates are noted down on a simple piece of paper by a coordinator, who changes each time, and are presented at an inter-committee meeting and then at the general assembly, where they can be submitted to a popular vote by show of hands.

“On arriving, I came across a very lively debate. I’m not interested in being involved in politics but, here, for once, taking part is a pleasure. We talk about societal issues, political issues. People feel concerned by the issues they discuss, there is no indifference. There is a desire to speak out, to express one’s dissatisfaction, first of all, and then to build,” says Jocelyn, a member of the welcome committee.

“Everyone is invited to speak. People come back every evening, often after work. It’s a citizens’ movement, a voluntary movement. We are re-establishing real democratic debate,” proudly explains Bruno, a member of the press and communication committee.

There is no shortage of discussion and working groups. The content is rich. “It is amazing to see how the people here talk with passion on economic matters, even complex ones. They may not always have the tools and the knowledge, but they have a real desire to retake ownership of the social and economic debate,” remarks Jean-Eric, a PhD student in economics.

That people are gathering primarily to debate is perhaps one of the elements distinguishing the French movement from the Indignados or Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movements that emerged in Madrid and New York in 2011.

“The key interest of the Nuit Debout movement in Paris, and other French cities, is to reclaim a voice, to reclaim the right to speak out, to be no longer dependent on those who have monopolised it. The participants debate, reflect on social issues and propose alternative ways of working that are independent of political institutions and timeframes,” reveals Michel Lussault, professor of geography at the ENS of Lyon, who has studied the movements in Spain and the United States.

The nuitsdeboutistes are clearly calling for direct democracy, which has indeed become one of the movement’s slogans. With no spokesperson on TV panels, no leaders and no organisation, Nuit Debout is seeking to invent a new form of collective expression, albeit embryonic, just weeks since its launch.

“This horizontal approach is still difficult to implement. We are experimenting. Society hasn’t taught us to act this way. For now, improvisation is working. But the general assemblies take time and the construction of ideas is quite complicated,” acknowledges Jocelyn at the welcome committee.


Self-organisation and symbols

Although still trying to find its way, the Nuit Debout movement is built around debate.

“The general assembly has a highly structuring role in it, with participants expressing themselves by means of coded hand gestures. It acts as a forum and an attraction for the public. But it is also reminiscent of the classical student assemblies, it is part of a lineage,” considers Michel Lussault, who spent two evenings at Nuit Debout in Paris and Lyon.

By contrast, “in Madrid and New York, they were occupation protests, with people sleeping and living on site. The camp, both in Wall Street and Madrid, was a form of protest, it was an objective in itself. Although they were sleeping outside, it was not only linked to the economic crisis or to young people being destitute. The camp’s self-organisation was designed to show that another way, a more simple way of living is possible. It was a collective experiment in day-to-day self-regulation in the face of capitalism,” affirms the professor from the ENS in Lyon.

In Paris, the movement is constructed and deconstructed each night. “We’re not too keen on the term occupation, as we have obtained the police’s authorisation to demonstrate (editor’s note: from 6 p.m. to midnight). We would rather talk of reclaiming a public space for debate. The tents are for practical purposes,” explains Bruno from the communication committee.

The small camp made up of a few solid structures did not last long in Paris, partly owing to pressure from the authorities, who ordered the evacuation of the square on the Monday morning after a week of tolerance.

In terms of logistics, the second week was more complicated for Nuit Debout, even to install a table, seating, or generators for Radio Debout, TV Debout and the PA system for the general assembly.

Then there was the “marmitegate” (cooking-pot-gate) episode, which amused the social networks, when the police forbid the entry of pots of soup, which they ended up pouring down the drain.


The night after?

In spite of everything, the movement has not waned and has spread to the outskirts of Paris, with varying degrees of success (Saint-Denis, Saint-Ouen, Montreuil), to France’s provinces, overseas territories and departments and even abroad (especially Belgium), where there are around a hundred participants at the gatherings.

Now that the movement has been launch, the question on everyone’s mind is: what next?

The withdrawal of the labour reform bill, one of the main triggers behind the movement, is of course one of the Nuit Debout’s objectives, endorsed in a general assembly. “But that’s not all, ‘the appetite will come with eating’”, says Bruno of the camp committee.

For François Ruffin, chief editor of the Fakir newspaper and director of the film “Merci Patron!”, around which an initial nucleus formed (Convergence of Struggles), giving rise to the first Nuit Debout, “We have to contemplate building alliances, with the trade unions, for example,” he said to the general assembly on 10 April.

“We need to block things so that everything unblocks itself,” exclaimed economist Frédéric Lordon, from the same collective, in order to “create the conditions for a general strike”.

But for now, nothing is imposed. Not least the idea of creating a political party, like the Indignados did with Podemos. “It is far too early to think of that, and there is far from being a consensus on the matter,” warns Bruno.

Ultimately, Nuit Debout still has to invent itself. “The convergence of struggles belongs to the classical vocabulary of the far left movement. The movement can last and succeed if it manages to give life to other forms of political discourse, avoiding the creation of a homogeneity of viewpoints on capitalism or even the police,” believes Michel Lussault.

“Participatory democracy would be interesting with Nuit Debout, whereby each individual feels like a citizen on a day-to-day basis, without being reduced to a vote in an election. But institutions are also important in France. That’s why we need to reflect on how Nuit Debout can coexist with the Parliament, for example,” he adds.

For the participants, although they may not really know where they are going, the most important thing has already been achieved: they are gathering.

As almost all of them say: “Something is happening.”


This story has been translated from French.