**Broe On The European Cultural Beat: The Nuit Debout Diaries. A continuing series of Arts Express Paris correspondent Professor Dennis Broe, on location there with updates from the mass labor and student protest movements. Which he indicates have spread to sixty cities across France, while currently spilling into Belgium as well. And with the possibility that Nuit Debut may turn up at the Cannes Film Festival, where Broe will be filing his on location report next week.
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Up All Night: Restoring the Republic by Questioning the Repression
Nuit Debout, the best translation of which is probably Up All Night, is a protest movement that has featured a radical and non-hierarchical rethinking of French society and French democracy, or the current lack thereof. The movement is growing fast. It began in Paris near the end of March and at the beginning of the April was said to have spread to 20 cities, but one week later was active in 60 cities. Like the French Revolution before them, the movement now boasts its own calendar, dating from its March start date, so that for example the 27th of April was called “58 March.”
I will rehearse a bit of the “history” of the movement, a strange word in this case since it is just a little over one month old, and then talk about what I think are its four key significances and finally say something about the film that in some way inspired it, Merci Patron, or Thanks Boss.
The movement grew out of the March 31 massive demonstration against the quote Reform of the Labor Laws at Republic, a massive union and youth rally to oppose the taking away of the 35 hour work week, forcing workers to work on Sunday, and making it easier for bosses to fire or layoff workers, all of which have deeply affected youth in this society. However the form of the movement, a series of mass meetings which begin in the early evening and heat up as the night progresses at Republic, came from a now famous line from an actor in a demonstration at the Stock Market, the Bourse, on February 23rd of trade unionists, activists and intellectuals protesting a new environmentally unsound airport at Notre-Dames-des-Landes, the closure of yet another factory (Goodyear at Amiens) and the opposition to what is called in the neoliberal parlance university “reform.” From the multiple struggles in that demo, came the idea of creating a forum where all the struggles could be talked about and the now famous line from an actor at the event who said “After the demo, I’m not going home.” What has emerged is France’s answer to the Occupy movement in the US and the Indigenes Movement in Spain, a non-hierarchical series of meetings to debate public issues growing out of the sense that the parliamentary public sphere is bankrupt. As Chatal Mouffe says, many leftists thought that the problem in France was Sarkozy and that the solution was to elect so called Socialists but it is now very clear that these are socialists in name only, and that Holland’s policies are much more the social liberalism of a Tony Blair or Bill (and Hilary) Clinton which has begot much disillusion.
Four major points about the significance of the movement and how it has already altered the socio-political debate in France:
- The transformation of the space of Republic. The square of the Republic had been captured by mourners of the December attacks. It was a place of trauma bonding which may be necessary but can also easily be used to heighten security funding, push through repressive legislation such as the lifting of nationality, and as a physical justification for increased bombing in the Middle East and in Syria where France has been one of the leaders in reining destruction. Nuit Debout has changed this space or rather returned it to a place of protest against the Holland government and in so doing has pointed to the fallacy of the left leaders climbing on the security bandwagon when the situation at home is desperate. That is, The R in Republic was beginning to stand for Repression but Nuit Debout has remade the space a place for the possible refounding of the democracy so the R once again stands for the Republic. Along with this Nuit Debout in its constantly contesting places and turning them into spaces has provoked the wrath of the police which in the May Day March for the first time were at the head of the procession. To counter this repression, the demonstrators led with a group of youth in hoods (cagouile) or bandanas or gas masks who were during the demonstration pelleted with tear gas. Le Monde, no firm pillar of support for the movement, the day of the demonstration led off its May Day coverage with a story about excessive police violence. Again, this questioning of the tactics of the police, spiriting demonstrators away for questioning or locking them in their homes because they might be a source of trouble as was done with the COP 21 Climate Conference, is a breach in the image of the police after the December attacks where they have been seen as benevolent guardians of security.
- There is a great fear of this movement spreading like wildfire and being uncontrollable. The Le Monde stories, that is the institutional center left representation of the movement, characterize it as simply a bobo or bourgie group of activists and intellectuals that will not spread outside of Paris. But, it already has adherents and similar outposts at least 60 other French cities and has crossed the border into Belgium. With such dissatisfaction and high unemployment in the country and with such disgust for the ineffective political institutions where both, much like in the US, the neoliberal center of both right and left is breaking down, there is real fear that it could spread quickly. Holland’s response is the hilariously paternal, “But we’ve done all we can for the kids, why are they questioning us?”
There is also the example of the Spanish movement which began in the central square of Madrid and only a year and a half later is the impetus behind first the election of the movement mayors of Madrid and Barcelona followed by the party that sprang from the Movement Podemos coming in third in the Spanish elections and potentially able to finish second when new elections are held. There are also comparisons to the Occupy Movement which it must be remembered was brutally sabotaged in many key cities by Democratic mayors and so there is fear as the movement grows that the police and the Socialist government or the region’s right wing department head will move against them. (The last week has been filled with police violence with much use of tear gas and with rubber pellets hitting one demonstrator in the eye.) However, Nuit Debout at this moment is wary of comparing itself to either movement because it does not wish the rapid eviseration of Occupy or a too quick turn to parliamentary politics as usual in the case of Podemos.
- This is predominantly youth movement but with strong links to the workers, beginning its stand at Republic after the March 31 union demonstrations against the new labor or really anti-labor law called the Al Kourmi law which will be debated in the French General Assembly this week and which was the occasion for very pointed May Day marches against the law which Nuit Debout joined.
The council thinking on work is very advanced already. The economy commission has recognized the end of the salatariat, of those who work for salaries in the coming world of automation and is pushing for a guaranteed wage, “from birth to death,” and the ability to work or not depending on how one wants to express themselves. The group has already outlined the mainstream coopting of this coming issue, the next stage on from the Bernie Sanders campaign, discussing the way the neoliberal capitalist right will propose a minimum and insufficient lifetime wage that will, in return for doing away with other social services, create a population totally at the mercy of the market, something like what is proposed in Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, while the left version will provisionally not touch the social system but allow for its trimming in the future. Nuit Debout’s evolving proposal asks for wage, social guarantees and a cooperative model which demands equality in the wage and a reduction in the time of work. This is the crucial debate that with 50% unemployment coming in the next 20 years no politician will touch.
- Movement organization is deceptive. It is non-hierarchical with speakers in the various assemblies taking turns and with the assemblies coming to decisions based on consensus, and against the parliamentary idea that there are issues in which 49% of the population loses. But though it is non-hierarchical, there is a strong organization and decisions and policies are being formulated and there is a high degree of organization necessary to keep the movement going. A Nuit Debout begins with late afternoon specific groups covering not only present but also historical moments so one early week saw discussions of the revolution of 1848, of May ’68 and the question of migration. At 6 there is a popular assembly bringing together 500 to 1000 people where the commissions present the state of their work which lasts until midnight. One problem seems to be that of retaining the memory and decision of the previous session so that Nuit Debout does not collapse into a kind of Groundhog Day where each day is a starting over.
A bit about the film Merci Patron and its role in Nuit Debout. The film is France’s Roger and Me about Francois Ruffin, raconteur and editor of the satirical magazine Fakir, and his love, albeit false, for Louis Vitton and Dior owner Bernard Arnault and his championing of a family let go by one of Arnault’s closings, the Klurs, who in the film win a settlement from the company as long as they don’t tell anybody about it, because then everyone Arnault lets go would want to be supported. The film is playing in the smaller theaters here is Paris but is selling out showing after showing. In my mind there are two main contributions that it makes. The first is a very clear idea of the difference in the country between the Arnault’s, surrounded by lavish fashion and parties, the height of elegance, and the Klur’s, barely able to survive. The film is strikingly clear in the way it differentiates the two worlds of the country, especially in dress, customs and manners. The Arnaults are also only seen at a distance, in promo spots and on the newscasts of their lavish parties while the Klurs are most often shown in the warm intimacy of their tiny kitchen.
The second interesting feature is that unlike the majority of French documentaries, which tackle controversial themes but in predictable fashion, the humor in this film makes us see both the Klurs and the Arnaults in a new light, fascinated by a destitute family and their ex-union best friend and repulsed by the imperious lavishness of the other. That is, we don’t get bored watching working class people. Ruffin keeps it interesting and light but pointed and the crowds enjoy the film but recognize that they are much closer to the Klurs than the Arnaults. Both the lightness and stark contrast are new impulses in French documentaries and the film itself is inspiring people to show up at Republic and question the direction the country is going where representative democracy, outflanked and capitulating to corporate capital, is resulting in no democracy at all.
Last week the movement also occupied space at the Odeon Theater, which by the way I referred to in my yearend roundup as draped in the slogan “The World Is Yours” which Nuit Debout is attempting to refashion from a delusional consumerist platitude to a slogan with actual meaning. The Theater was one of the key sites of the ’68 Student Revolt here in Paris and this close to the Cannes film festival also raises questions about whether Nuit Debout will spill over into the festival, which often courts controversy as a way of promoting itself in the way that commercializes the ‘68 moment where the New Wave directors Truffaut and Godard led a protest that closed the festival. Will Up All Night appear at the festival to rethink France’s relation with commercial film production? We’ll see next week as I report on Cannes.
May Day addendum. While workers were occupied with trying to stop a repressive labor law, the far right on May Day was splintering. In its traditional subsuming of workers’ rights into a nationalistic celebration of Joan of Arc, the far right Marine Le Pen was at one Parisian Joan statue at Augustine while Jean-Marie Le Pen, her even farther right father was at a different statue at Pyramides. Le Pen the father compared his exile by his daughter--he’s persona non grata in the party with his openly racist remarks judged to make him an albatross in next year’s election--to the beheading of Louis XVI by the revolutionaries. In farther right circles Marine Le Pen is now a revolutionary–you’ve come a long way baby.