Assembly of the Feminist Committee at Place de la République. Photo: Elliott Verdier

Nuit Debout: building an open movement in France’s squares

  • May 3, 2016

People & Protest

Paolo Gerbaudo interviews Nuit Debout activist Baki Youssoufou on the driving force behind the social mobilization and the inclusiveness of the movement.

What is the driving force behind this movement? Is it the Labor Law or is it something broader than that?

I think that the Labor Law is what made people join this movement. But in a way it was just the initial pretext for the mobilization to begin. Most people are coming here because they think there is a problem of democracy in France.

There are two reasons for this feeling. First, the el-Khormi bill shows that there is no difference between the parties of the left and the right. It has been made by the Socialist Party but it is essentially a right-wing law. Second, people have realized that the security laws that have been introduced in the aftermath of the November 13 terrorist attacks are endangering civil liberties. The government has used the terror attacks as an excuse to curtail our freedoms.

Nuit Debout looks very similar to the movement of the squares of 2011. There also seem to be some differences in tactics, however. For example, instead of a fixed camp, people set up tents every day and pack them up again every night. Why is that?

Nuit Debout is not an occupation because we believe the movements of 2011 have been defeated precisely because they were occupations. The problem is that when you occupy, the army or the police can always come and evict you from the square. When we started this movement we said we are not going to set up an occupation. We are not occupying this space, we are just staying here, we are using the space to have conversations. We are not setting up structures, we are not setting up barriers.

How has the police reacted to that?

They don’t really know what to do, because when they come to disperse the crowd, people let them in. The movement mostly does not react to that. It just allows them to do that. Because then, as soon as they have left, we can simply come back again. We just use our communications and social media to tell people that we are going to meet for an assembly again. We do not need to have a fixed place for that.

Can you describe the different souls of the movement? How representative is the left-wing faction Convergence des Luttes and its intellectual figurehead Frédéric Lordon?

Convergence des Luttes only represent one part of the movement. They think that unions are still the main force capable of changing society, and they work within the political party of the left, Front de Gauche. Many people in the square disagree with that. We distrust both parties and unions because we think that they have also been responsible for the present situation.

Furthermore, there is a difference in strategy. Convergence des Luttes wants to unite people who are already in struggle. We are more inclusive than this traditional left view. We also want to open the door to people who are not in the struggle yet but are ready to mobilize on various issues, and also to those who do not yet know about these issues. We want to be open to everybody as long as they adhere to basic principles: no racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no antisemitism.

How is the movement different from previous movements in France

This movement is more open. We are taking the time to look at one another, to take care of everyone, to be inclusive, to spend more time discussing questions — because not everybody has the same background. We also have to try to revisit our language and our practices and to make our ideas more contemporary.

For example, I am an anarchist, but I know that it cannot be the old anarchism. We need to adapt our ideas and actions to the present time. We need to adapt our way of doing things to social media like Facebook and Twitter. Finally, the movement is non-violent it does not want to break the law, but to use the law in order to be disobedient. This is a very new thing, and a paradoxical one, but a very powerful one.

Some people have criticized the movement for not being sufficiently inclusive. Is that true?

I think this is still a challenge for the movement, which reflects the more general problems of French society and the fact that there are people who are discriminated against. The movement is definitely more diverse than many left movements, or than the occupation in La Bastille in 2011, where 90 percent of people came from social movements and the left.

But we also need to be more inclusive with respect to various ethnic communities and people in the banlieues. The movement today is not reaching out to those people because the subjects themselves are not really representative of their movement. We need to make a much greater effort to do that.

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