Alex, age 29, has been an activist in Paris since he was a teenager who studied political science in university and worked for a member of parliament. He left that job because of the lack of freedom to criticize policy, which he blames on the form of government set up by the Fifth Republic’s constitution of 1958. It replaced the parliamentary government with a stronger president. He defines himself as an existentialist like John-Paul Sartre who doesn’t believe we have an essential nature, so he is concerned about the declining quality of French education needed to shape informed citizens. He’s a leftist “red” socialist who believes that utilities like nuclear power should not be privately owned, but it’s fine to have private ownership of something like a car manufacturers. He said President Francois Holland and his Socialist Party are not socialist when we talked on Skype on May 8, 2016, available on YouTube.
Current protests are “all new, not the old way of seeing the world,” Alex believes. He explained that what’s new is they want the rules to change, so they disobey them with “means of pressure” such as doing occupations or unauthorized marches as when over 2,000 marched to the Prime Minister’s house. He said, “We’re not afraid anymore, we do what we want.” They’re not afraid of the police because protesters are so numerous and activists have a phone app that the police can’t see so they can organize quickly. He observed, “People on the square are writing new rules, discussing new political and social organization, making a network of people who share views. We experiment with direct democracy in the squares, this is never lost. People now have a taste for it.” Nuit Debout demonstrators aim for a “new world” of genuine democracy, with “no leaders, no demands, no pre-fixed ideas.”[i] In the beginning people even used the same name, Camille, which can be for both sexes. They adopted the slogan of the May 1968 student protests, “L’imagination au Pouvoir” (the power of the imagination). A cartoon in Le Monde showed a group of penguins with the caption, “Let’s meet here every night until we can figure out why.”
His model democracy is the Paris Commune of 1871 where workers governed themselves democratically before the German army helped the French military kill 25,000 people in just one week. Alex credits the commune experiment with free education, equal pay for women, and separation of church and state. Along the theme of what’s new, I asked Alex about high school activist today; he said they are more aggressive but not violent, never stop and go faster. Young people made the first video to publicize the protests against the labor laws called the El Khomri law that change hiring and firing protections, at a time when 25% of youth were unemployed.
Alex said the current movement are influenced by economist Frédéric Lordon (age 54), the first time since Sartre that such an intellectual has been part of the movement. Lodron maintains that Nuit Debout is not like Spanish Podemos that tries to replace concepts of left and right with the 1% versus the 99%. Lordon believes that left and right remain important ways of looking at politics: “In France, someone who says they’re neither left nor right is, without exception, on the right or will end up on the right.”[ii] He also advocates that that activists not negotiate or make demands of politicians, as the problem is the political system itself. He thinks social democracy surrendered to the capitalist empire, and looks to self-managed co-ops in Argentina and Spain as models of alternatives. Lordon wrote an influential article about the film Merci Patron, published in the February 2016 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique. This article encouraged the filmmaker, Francois Ruffin, to call for a public meeting that happened on March 31. Lordon spoke, advocating uniting the various leftist factions.
To protest proposed labor laws that would weaken hard-won rights from previous struggles (they passed in July), a petition against it got a record million signatures, which doubled quickly. Alex called for a demonstration against the erosion of worker rights via Facebook for March 9, liked by 200,000 supporters. He posted polls about where and when they should assemble. They decided on the Place de la Republique at 2:00 PM. He also called for donations to purchase flags and other supplies, and organized security for the march. Union leaders ignored his calls for three weeks, and then called in their support the day before the march, bringing about half of the demonstrators. They organized a protest on March 31 with over a million people in 250 cities, despite the pouring rain, in the first Nuit Debout protest that continued in nightly assemblies of “nuitdeboutistes.” A popular anti-capitalist documentary film called Merci Patron fueled it. Tens of thousands more marched on April 9 in cities around France to protest the law, and the movement spread to Belgium, Germany and Spain. A group called Convergence des Luttes (convergence of the struggles) claims credit for starting Nuit Debout to unify the anarchists, ecologists, and other leftists.
This was the first large demonstration not organized by unions. Like other global youth activists, Alex didn’t want to be associated with a political party, union or other group, reaching out to unaffiliated supporters. Another new tactic was the use of videos and the Internet only utilized by the left for the previous three or four years; before the right dominated this media. Alex reported about 500,000 demonstrators showed up around France and 100,000 in Paris, the largest demonstration in years. Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek leader of an European democracy movement, spoke to the crowd saying, “I’m bringing you solidarity from Athens and one request: Don’t let this energy go to waste.”
The March 9 event was a predecessor for Nuit Debout, where Alex helped organize security. A DJ, he also helped set up a radio transmitter in the Place do la Republique. To avoid loud speakers, demonstrators brought their own radios and boom boxes to listen to the radio station and dance to the music. They also auto-organized a TV station, YouTube channel, and kitchen. A group worked with Alex to build the media center; people who had never worked together before achieved a lot in an hour. Other activities were poetry readings, concerts, and food stalls, and Gas where anyone can speak for five minutes, using the usual hand signals to express opinion in a crowd of up to 3,000 people. Police restricted time in the square, reducing time spent in General Assemblies. One of the topics of discussion is how to deal with right-wing agitators who try to take over. Sometimes they violate the law by not notifying police that some of the demonstrators are going on a spontaneous march.
Since a common issue is men dominated GAs, I asked Alex if this has been a problem. “Yes, men talk more. It’s really hard to change; it’s part of our society. It’s something we discuss a lot but you can’t change all social dominations in one day.” The feminist group active in Nuit Debout, Feminismes denounced sexual harassment in the square, with cat calling and sexist comments and touching. He’s against Affirmative Acton for employers because if they reach a quota they tend to just hire white men. He prefers penalties for companies that discriminate such as fines.
Alex also joined in the first-time occupation of the national theater, the Comedie-Francaise, the world’s longest established theater. It’s near a tourist hub with the Louvre, a statement that the protesters had the power to do what they wanted to make a public statement of protest, without the police being able to interfere. They were careful not to damage the theater.
Alex also protests the reduction of liberty and rights enabled by the state of emergency that President Hollande put in place in reaction to terrorist bombings, renewed after a terrorist attack in Nice on Bastille Day. Mass demonstrations are prohibited. Police violence against protesters who are called terrorists increased even though protesters are much less aggressive and numerous (about 10,000 people) than in protests a decade ago. Protests in Geneva and Seattle included hundreds of Black Bloc protesters who burned some police cars and beat up police beat. Police not only use tear gas but hundreds of grenades: a fragment of one hit his bike helmet, which police confiscated. Police even threw grenades down the Metro, similar to the Sintagma protests in Greece in 2011 where police are also often right-wing nationalists. A video of a Paris high school student being beaten by police went viral, sparking more outrage. One of the first actions of the spring mobilizations in Paris was to prevent police from beating up refugees and Parisians became more sympathetic to them. However, some protesters smashed bank windows as and cars as capitalist symbols
Violation of citizen rights increased, such as seizing cameras and deleting photos and videos from the Comedie-Francaise occupation or searching an activist’s home without judicial authorizations. Alex was beat up by police in a demonstration at a political science university on March 17 and a young woman got her scalp torn by a police a baton. Alex joined another demonstration at the court on May 9 when five protesters arrested at the university were put on trial.
When I interviewed Alex, he reported that around 5,000 people had been arrested in the last few months, mostly activists. A political science student got six months in jail for throwing a Coke can at police who interfered with discussion of politics at his university. In lieu of jail, some activists are required to report to a police station three times a day, which means they have to give up their jobs and can’t pay their living expenses.
[i] John Litchfield, “Nuit Debout Protet Movement Growing in Size, The Independent, April 19, 2016.
[ii] Lucy Wadham, “French Take to the Barricades to Protect their Way of Life,” The Guardian, May 14, 2016.