Rising up Together

Nina Léger

On 31 March during the protest against the El Khomri law (France’s new labour law), a few protesters handed out flyers which read Nuit debout (“rising up at night”), echoing La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude: “Tyrants appear great only because we are on our knees”. That same evening, people were invited to gather on place de la République where François Ruffin’s film Merci Patron! was to be screened and discussed. The evening’s motto: “Tonight, nobody goes home”. It had rained heavily during the whole protest. Everyone was drenched and everything was soaking wet. Despite that, several thousand citizens made it to place de la République and stayed on.

Several thousand people rediscover their civil dignity

Primarily, this type of event – where participants witness free speech in action and see such a large group of people willing to come together – creates a feeling of amazement. All activists (in the broadest sense) experience this when, for the first time, they feel like they are many and can have an impact. They aren’t university classmates or colleagues who decided to take action: they are people who do not know each other but who come together, exchange ideas, make decisions and act collectively. An internet user tried to gauge the number of people passing by place de la République on a daily basis and his estimation was 10,000. Even though this figure should be considered with caution, there is no doubt that every day, several thousand people rediscover their civil dignity during Nuit Debout.

Since that first night, the square has more or less been constantly occupied. After numerous demonstrations, it has become the starting point for a completely new and growing movement where party activists looking for change meet disillusioned citizens, non-voters, blank ballot defenders, etc., many of them experiencing for the first time the profusion, the richness as well as the mess that characterise grass-roots movements.

Things are different here

For others, this is a moment of rediscovery. There are many organised activists present, be they independent, from the Left Front or the New Anticapitalist Party, trade unions, community organisations, etc. They first look at each other in an aloof and amused manner. These activists feel – sometimes rightly – more experienced than others, and their political and organisational maturity means that they perceive the early stages of this assembly as funny and naive. But most of those who decide to stay, who sit with others and take part in the discussions, rapidly change their tone. At that point, we realise that having more advanced organisational skills also, to a certain degree, prevented us from discussing the various forms such organisation can take. We are used to set ways of discussing things where rules cannot be changed and therefore are rarely questioned. Things are different here. Everybody talks about everything and repeats what has already been said, but people also take risks and action. Whoever cares about such or such issue can stand up, write a corresponding committee name on a sheet of paper, sit on the square and start discussing the subject with others – and just like that a new committee is born. There is a poetry committee, a manifesto committee, an economic policy committee… They keep on coming, regardless of whether they will survive, or whether they will produce results. And it is precisely because nothing is expected from them at this stage that they can be created and grow so easily.

Where does this movement stop?

This leads us on to one of the issues associated with developments on the square: where does this movement stop? And, more precisely, is the fact that it still has neither a structure nor a goal an obstacle, as we are so often told? The gap between drafting a constitution and protesting against labour law is huge and nothing seems to be clear-cut. The same thing can be said about creating committees or organising events or actions. Many people are raising their voices on the issue. The fear of appearing like a conventional party or a trade-union movement is nuanced by a willingness to join, on a larger scale, other social struggles. The rejection of politics is there but it is by no means omnipresent, and it often seems to result from a form of trepidation towards anything political – we will not do “that thing” we are so often excluded from – and/or from a semantic ambiguity: everything that is said or done is eminently political, starting with reclaiming public spaces. And yet, you hear people say that we need to write a new constitution without “sinking” into politics.

Desire for horizontality

On the square, this need for structure sometimes seems to become an aim in itself, even prior to identifying the movement’s goal. In fact, many of those who have been there since the beginning can no longer stand to hear the same things over and over again said by a multitude of different people every day. But by focusing on this need, the debates sometimes become tense and tend to be reduced to the age-old argument between those who advocate complete horizontality and those who see the need for a more organised structure. Even though this argument can sometimes be sterile – when, for instance, a discussion cannot happen because no rules have been defined – it is also a central question (amongst so many other questions) on which not only the future of the movement will depend, but also the creation of a new form of democracy, redesigned by thousands of researchers in this gigantic lab.

An organisational culture that is more than a century old, as far as political parties and trade unions resulting from the workers’ movement are concerned, still has a lot to learn from a ten-day-old movement, and vice versa. And it is because Nuit Debout protesters are aware of this that they use the pronoun “we” and are trying to move forward together. After all, who knows the strengths and weaknesses of our structures better than organised activists? Everything we know in our organisations – things that can sometimes be hard work, intimidating, hard to tackle, complicated or that don’t allow activists to be completely involved on a political level – all of that needs to be thought through and questioned in light of what is happening on the place de la République. We need to think about this desire for horizontality – probably one of the words heard most often on the square – and the possibility to reclaim political speech because people feel they have a legitimate right to do so here. Do our existing organisational mechanisms allow us to satisfy these aspirations? Do our methods fit the increasing number of communication and decision-making tools of our time?

The whole system of political representation, and not only the labour law, is being discredited

On the square, many people are keen to discuss things and make decisions. Of course, this isn’t a complete novelty, but here the sense of willingness is very strong. And how can this come as a surprise when citizens feel, at best, like they are not being represented by politicians and, at worst, betrayed? How can this come as a surprise when such feelings are based on facts, most importantly the fact that the French voted the Left into power four years ago? The justice of a class system that allows people like Patrick Balkany (a French politician accused of tax evasion and money laundering) to escape jail and puts a mother who steals to feed her children behind bars; the impunity of white-collar criminals, politicians or bankers; the well-known collusion between the latter two; the social homogeneity in politics… All of these are not the actions of a handful of people but the system as a whole. And this system marginalises a shockingly high number of people. It is therefore logical that this whole system of political representation, and not only the labour law, is being discredited. The search for maximum horizontality is shared by the majority and is predominantly discussed in debates.

How do we create a democratic space that would involve as many people as possible?

It is important to highlight that things have never been that easy on the technical front. Citizens who are competent in the field are currently trying to create digital tools in order to extend the debate online. A few have already been set up, such as https://chat.nuitdebout.fr/home and https://wiki.nuitdebout.fr/wiki/Accueil. On the square, people are talking about how to bring these discussion spaces together. We can also be certain that Nuit Debout has a lot to teach us on this subject.

How do we create a democratic space that would involve as many people as possible in its tangible construction as well as its actions and decisions? This is the question that needs to be answered. Admittedly, not being able to see past structural issues can seem like an obstacle. But besides the fact that this issue is not unusual for a mobilisation that has lasted only two weeks, this question can actually be seen as preliminary to all others that follow: the content of discussions will depend on the importance given to each and every one of us, and creating a framework together is the only way to ensure the greatest possible involvement. This new, horizontal way of debating and taking action and the coming together of thousands of people to think collectively is something worth learning from as much as it is worth participating in. Why? Because this is where we belong; because these goals are the reasons why we decided to become involved politically; because we are fighting precisely in order to give a voice and power back to the people – and, lest we forget, we too are the people. That is the reason why we can say “us” when we talk about the citizens gathered on the square, and we will not be able to reinvent the world without this plural “we”, which encompasses a large group of diverse and creative individuals.

This article was first published by Transform! Network.