When French President François Hollande presented a series of labor reforms that would make it easier for employers to fire workers, he probably didn’t expect the mass public outrage that followed. On March 31, thousands of French activists gathered at the Place de la République for the screening of a film called “Merci Patron!” (“Thanks Boss!”), about ordinary people pitted against a major corporation.
The film inspired people to protest the labor reforms—they remained in the streets and stayed up all night, adopting the slogan “Nuit Debout,” which roughly translates into “Up All Night,” or “Rise Up At Night.” Despite a police crackdown Monday, when several people were arrested, the activists returned in full force and are still there. More importantly, the protests are spreading to Belgium, Britain, Spain and Germany.
Most Americans have heard nothing of this. There has been very little mainstream media coverage of Nuit Debout in the U.S. (One of the few mainstream U.S. reports was by Newsweek, featuring quotes from American activist and author David Graeber, but no French sources).
Of course, when there are terrorist attacks against our neighbors across the Atlantic, particularly by Muslims, the U.S. media make it headline news. The justification for this type of outsize coverage is our shared Western values with Europe. But somehow this kinship crumbles when Europeans hold mass demonstrations against capitalist policies.
Luckily, in our Internet age, the corporate media are becoming less relevant. The French movement quickly set up its own website, www.NuitDebout.fr, with a live stream offering people around the world a glimpse into actions as they unfold. It helps if you understand French, of course.
In an English-language interview on Rising Up With Sonali, French activist and photojournalist Eros Sana explained that “people are angry for many reasons,” chief among them the fact that “François Hollande has been implementing a neoliberal agenda.” He added that specifically, “France is very well known for a lot of social gains and the fact that you cannot fire anyone as you want.” But Hollande’s reforms will undermine those protections with the claim that being able to fire people more easily will also allow corporations to hire more easily. Angered by this, a largely young and left-leaning group has mobilized, including high school and college students, workers and the unemployed.
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The French have been living under a state of emergency in the aftermath of last year’s attacks in Paris. The location of the Nuit Debout protests is highly symbolic. The Place de la République became a major site of mourning for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, but since the November attacks, the government has banned people from gathering there for social protests. The encampment at the Place de la République is happening in defiance of government restrictions. People are taking back the space metaphorically and literally. The movement is, in part, an attempt “to gain our democracy and our rights back,” said Sana.
As in the U.S., Sana says, politicians are trying to use the fear of Islam to distract people from focusing on their exploitation and crumbling labor rights. He pointed out that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has been the source of “hate speech against Muslims, condemning people who wear Islamic veils in the streets, saying that Islam is the main issue of our society.” The attacks last November have left a segment of French society convinced that this is true. But Nuit Debout protesters are keeping the focus on the government’s increasingly pro-corporate policies.
French officials have likely realized their proposed reforms were a mistake. Whether they retreat from them altogether remains in question. In an obvious attempt to mollify activists earlier this week, Hollande made a generous-sounding offer to students. According to Reuters, the offer included “subsidies for young graduates looking for a job and other aid for apprentices and students, worth a total of 400 million euros-500 million euros.” Sana sees this as Hollande’s attempt to “break the movement, to divide the movement,” since young people form the backbone of Nuit Debout. According to him, the offer is Hollande’s way of saying, “ ‘C’mon guys, go back to your high schools, go back to your colleges and we’ll deal with you.’ [But] the young people are still in the street and they’re not buying it.”
Many are comparing Nuit Debout with the U.S, Occupy Wall Street movement. There are several similarities, including superficial ones, with people organizing themselves into committees and holding nightly general assemblies and using hand signals to communicate. “Many activists that are involved in this movement were inspired by what happened on Wall Street,” said Sana. But they also drew inspiration from a geographically closer source—the Indignados movement in Spain.
What all these uprisings have in common is the ability for people to communicate instantly with one another and bypass traditional forms of mass communication. Social media networks have been instrumental in mobilizing masses of people. “What the mainstream media don’t tell you, your Twitter account’s friends will tell you,” said Sana. He cited an example of how several days ago, one activist used a popular app called Periscope to broadcast what was happening in the streets while 80,000 users watched online.
The movement is barely two weeks old. Aside from demanding an end to the proposed labor reforms, there are no clear-cut, broad-based demands as yet. This is typical of such mass uprisings. As the Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrated, spontaneous encampments are too large, unwieldy and organic to articulate demands quickly. Perhaps these explosive uprisings ought to be seen as a natural expression of the mass frustration people feel about their increased subservience to corporate power and political elites. Sana related that committees at the Nuit Debout camp attempt to discuss and articulate demands each night. But everyone agrees that the most important concern is: “How do we reclaim democracy?”