#NuitDebout: a convergence of struggles takes shape in France

  • April 8, 2016

Movement & Mobilization

The #NuitDebout movement took root from a simple question: “how do we scare them?” The answer was obvious: by spending the night on our feet!

Originally published in French at Mediapart.fr. Warm thanks to Jeremy Daly for the translation.

The #NuitDebout (“night on our feet”) movement, which began in Paris on March 31 following a general strike and mass demonstrations against the proposed French labor reforms, has vowed no longer to lie down in the face of the powers that be.

The “popular dream” has been established for an indefinite period of time. In cities all over France, including in Paris in the Place de la République, popular occupations and gatherings are urging people to reflect on and work towards the convergence of struggles, an extensive framework that promises hope.

Pinch me. I think I’m dreaming. Days pass and the sun hasn’t set on the #NuitDebout. They didn’t want to go home after the demonstrations of March 31 against the proposed labor reforms, and a gap has now opened up.

This was no April Fools’. The old political guard — characterized by division and sterile controversies — came to a standstill in this space, emancipated from the constraints of a reality that has for too long been a synonym of frustration. The atmosphere is now that of a “popular dream”, defined by a powerful desire for the future, a terrible act of subversion in this era of fear.

Through the occupation of public spaces, in particular the emblematic Place de la République in Paris, a transversal movement composed of atoms of organizations, particles of activists and madly liberated electrons has decided to fuse and converge in an explosion of joy. The welcome is so warm that it has allowed its occupants to brave the cold until dawn.

Unfortunately, however, their breakfast is invariably spoiled by those who come to extinguish the fire in their bellies. On the third day, the occupants were able to hold their ground in the Place de la République, but the night was restless following foiled infiltration attempts of the gatherings by the extreme-right July 14 movement.

An inspired tag in the occupied Tolbiac faculty at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University wonders: “where will we scatter the ashes of the Old World?” Perhaps in the image of the #NuitDebout occupation that has lasted for several nights, they will be the early morning coals that rekindle the flame each night, while the wind of revolt carries and spreads it across the country.

The shattered dream of cheap capitalism

There’s no denying it: “their nights are more beautiful than your days,” these cursed days of dread and division. The poor fear losing the roof over their heads, the workers fear losing their jobs, the rich fear reprisal for stashed billions in Switzerland…

In this time, the masters, the oligarchy of the ultra-rich and powerful, the infamous “1%”, tremble with the culpable disquietude of being stripped of their riches for having transformed the beauty of the world into a vulgar work of financial fiction, leaving behind a pitiable and negligible inheritance.

Paradise is now fiscal, but damnation is certainly a reality for the poor: “62 people own the same amount of wealth as half of the world’s population,” according to Oxfam. The rest are condemned to purgatory by these masters devoid of justice or magnanimity, these “tyrants who are only tall because we are at our knees,” as a young Étienne de La Boétie put it.

What would the young, assaulted Bergsons and the others make of it today? Perhaps that the servitude offered to them as a unique destiny no longer has anything voluntary about it…

When the French Minister of Economy, Emmanuel Macron, encouraged the youths to join the ranks of the billionaires club, he was being more realistic than provocative — the future is indeed that binary for the youth: minimum wage for the lucky, wealth for the nasty.

Unfortunately for the dominant class, the “Made in China” comfort of a 20m² studio apartment does not sell as well as the house promised to our parents. The kitsch publicity of cheap capitalism unravels even before the credit is reimbursed.

In this paradise in distress, it would seem that an adult’s rite of passage consists of digging oneself further into debt, chains clinking around the necks of those who march with bowed and aching heads.

Still, there is something incongruous about begging on one’s knees to such sellers of junk, as stingy as they are petty. To this end, the participants of the occupation have chosen to demand nothing, not to beg and never to lie down. Frédéric Lordon wholeheartedly spelled out this ambition in the one and only speech of the March 31 demonstration:

Thanks to El Khomri, Valls and Hollande for having finally opened our eyes and for showing us the point we are at. There is nothing more to negotiate, there is nothing more to demand. […] For our part, we are now determined to go down a different path. The path that removes frameworks, roles and assignments. The affirmed and established path of political desire!

When there’s nothing to lose, there’s everything to gain, and so the hopeless finish by liberating themselves from their fears. These occupants are emboldened to the point of “wanting everything, taking everything, and leaving them nothing,” but all this will require tearing it down, and not just snatching granny from atop your scooter…

The convergence of struggles: a political blasphemy?

The #NuitDebout movement took root from a simple question, inspired by the satirical, subversive documentary Merci Patron by François Ruffin, founder of the Fakir newspaper: “how do we scare them?”

During a public debate at the Trade Union Center, a thousand people responded in unison: “after the protests, we’re not going home, let’s spend the night on our feet!” A slogan was born, yet it was still to be decided what to make of these nights. They decided to break through the gloominess, recalling Seneca: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain,” in order to call for the convergence of struggles.

This convergence is an idea at once so simple, yet so difficult to establish: how do we unite everyone when there are as many struggles as there are people? This strategic issue is at the heart of the #NuitDebout.

Convergence is primarily voluntary, like the hundreds of people involved in the preliminary organization in the various committees. The stated objective was a shrewd mix of modesty and ambition:

We believe that the machine should be put into operation. Then, we hope it will live! #NuitDebout is the beginning of a movement.

The convergence is complex as it requires renunciating and letting go, far from the institutional hyper-control that is so dear to traditional political structures (political parties, unions, associations, etc.). The #NuitDebout movement refuses to incarnate itself, preferring an undoubtedly multifaceted approach, as elusive as it is truly representative.

The convergence of struggles remains a political blasphemy for those whose rigid postures sometimes badly disguise a strong personalization of ideas. #NuitDebout is inventing its own tools to clear the land and is inviting one and all to participate as builder and architect in order to lay the foundations for a new democratic and popular cathedral.

So what do we potentially risk in arousing these political sleepwalkers whose dreams have been replaced by ambition?

The tightrope masters of this disillusioned world could indeed take a fall in order to awaken themselves from this nightmare into which they have plunged us. In spending the nights on their feet, our citizens will perhaps surrender themselves to the feverish expectation of dawn to admire a world that wakes to a new day.

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