PARIS – “This is amazing, people are finally taking the political debate into their own hands,” 19-year-old literature student Zoe beamed as she roamed Paris’ Place de la Republique, where thousands are meeting nightly to debate, protest and dream of another world.
Street protests are hardly a novelty in the homeland of the 1789 French revolution and the May 1968 student-worker uprising.
But the occupation, night after night, of the vast square by left-wing and anarchist young people is a novel form of snowballing action that is giving President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government sleepless nights.
The “Nuit Debout” or “Up all Night” movement began on March 31 when a group of activists decided not to go home after a march against labour reform, said 35-year-old Simon, a theatre worker and one of the volunteers who greets newcomers.
Crowds ranging from several hundred to a few thousand have gathered every evening since then for a spontaneous happening that is a mixure of street theatre, party and ritual initiation for a new generation of activists.
Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States and Spain’s 2011 Indignados street sit-ins, “Nuit Debout” unites the discontented in a mostly joyous hubbub of debate on everything from rewriting the French constitution to protesting against police violence and labour reforms.
Working groups on the square discuss utopian projects such as a universal income, a lifetime job guarantee or worker takeovers of companies, but also women’s rights, the media, unemployment and climate change.
Veterans of the Spanish youth protests, which gave rise to the far-left Podemos (We Can!) party, came to Paris to offer informal advice on how to organize.
Hostility to government plans to make layoffs easier and cheaper, and encourage enterprise-level bargaining on working hours and wages, has prompted students and high school pupils to demonstrate alongside more traditional trade union marches.
“Nuit Debout is a problem for Hollande because it’s largely his 2012 voters who are taking to the street and saying ‘We were fooled. Never again’,” Socialist lawmaker Malek Boutih told Le Monde daily.
Hollande made a big play for the youth vote in his 2012 election campaign and is now considering whether to run again in 2017 despite record low approval ratings.
The all-night sit-ins spread to some 60 towns around the provinces at the weekend, worrying the government sufficiently for it to announce about 500 million euros in extra subsidies for young job seekers on Monday.
HEADACHE FOR HOLLANDE
“Nuit Debout shows the government is struggling to talk with parts of its own electorate,” said Francois Miquet-Marty, head of the Viavoice polling institute.
Protesters say the latest handouts to students and apprentices miss the point.
“The thinking behind the ‘Nuit Debout’ is to find new confidence in our own strength precisely because we don’t trust those who rule us any more,” 20-year-old political science student Victor said.
“When they (the government) say that they’re working for young people, it’s a huge lie. They’re just trying to halt the momentum.”
Like all those interviewed on Monday night, Victor declined to give his full name. He and others explained that this is to avoid appearing as spokespeople of a movement that insists it is leader-less even if it a few high-profile activists, including an economist and a documentary filmmaker, helped launch it.
The ‘Nuit Debout’ protesters agree only that they want change. There is no defined platform beyond widespread anger at the government’s pro-business reforms.
“It is really uplifting to see so many people around me who want something else, even if it’s not quite clear yet what that something else is,” said Clementine, who works for a non-governmental organization.
There are committees to discuss specific issues and a daily general assembly at 6 p.m., where all are free to speak but must register first and respect a time limit. When the sound system goes down, all those within hearing range relay the speakers’ words by shouting to those at the back of the square.
Asked what their objective is, a common response among the participants is “We’ll see where this gets us”.
That lack of clear platform is one of the movement’s limits, said Albert Ogien, a director at the CNRS research institute and specialist in new political movements.
“May ’68 was all about having an actual revolution against capitalism. Now it’s much more diffuse… and it’s hard to have another May ’68 if you don’t have one clearly identified common ennemy,” he said.
So far, the numbers are far from achieving the critical mass to sustain a nationwide movement. School and university holidays starting next week and exams after the break could well add to protest fatigue, analysts said, noting that the Indignados and Occupy movements eventually fizzled.
“It takes more than a thousand to make a May ’68, you need a whole country,” Ogien said.
Participants point to another issue they say the movement needs to remedy: the protesters are overwhelmingly white students and workers from central Paris, and few come from France’s under-privileged, ethnically diverse suburbs.
Place de la Republique had become an improvised shrine and a symbol of national unity where huge crowds rallied after last year’s Islamist attacks in Paris. The ‘Nuit Debout’ movement has pitched its tents and built its stalls around that shrine, still festooned with candles, banners, graffiti and flowers.
For Viavoice’s Miquet-Marty, while ‘Nuit Debout’ is too disorganised for now to threaten the system, “it would be dangerous for the government to let it get bigger.”
Police moved in to clear the square peacefully early on Monday, but the protesters were back by the evening.
The government has taken a mostly hands-off approach despite a nationwide state of emergency in force since last November’s deadly Paris attacks. Security forces have intervened only when a small group of rioters tried to reach Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s nearby home on Saturday.