The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2016

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MAY 2016 Issue
Field Notes

It’s Difficult to Say Exactly What, But Something is Happening
A Social Movement Awakens in France

After several years of relative calm, France has been in an uproar since the beginning of March. The cause: a thorough rejection of ideas contained in the reform of the labor code that the government claims is necessary to combat unemployment, a reform which affects at least some five million people. From the demonstrators’ point of view we are witnessing a fundamental challenge to a social model supposed to be good for everyone. The Labor Minister, Myriam El Khomri, who engineered the law, wagered that in a few years young people would be thanking her. She didn’t need to wait so long; today many of us are already thanking her for having woken us up as protesters. Indeed, many of us have decided not to let this law come to pass. Strikes, raised fists, and occupations of city squares mark the movement that began on March 9.


The Labor Law

The crux of the matter is the question of work in all its aspects. The new labor law threatens to force millions of French people, whom the government sees as too idle, into precarious work situations and to make the jobs of those who have permanent employment more precarious. The new measures see to the facilitation of layoffs, the increase of work time up to sixty hours per week and twelve hours per day, the decrease of paid medical leave, the lowering of unemployment benefits. When the unions organized meetings to share information about the labor law in February, some people felt a real physical fear about what was in store for them. The heart of the new law rests on undermining French labor law, based on the preeminence of labor standards. The old labor code, which has existed since 1910, constitutes the foundation of all the regulations and adjustments affecting every individual’s work situation. Every level of contract, from industry-wide agreements and company agreements to employee contracts, were supposed to improve working conditions. The new labor law inverts this system by making the old labor code powerless, with absolutely no protection for workers. Wage earners will find themselves isolated and vulnerable when dealing with their bosses.

Kitchen set up on the Place de la Republique.

One of the starting points of the protests is a media initiative called On vaut mieux que ça or “We’re worth more than that,” which has publicized thousands of stories, texts, and videos about fairly basic work experiences. Should we be surprised that the theme of the struggle is the job? Everybody wants to talk about their job, what they are doing and making. Their words reveal their unease about the conditions of work and the silence imposed on the majority of workers. Personal stories from “We’re worth more than that” tell of the many difficulties and miseries encountered in the workplace, not to mention in the search for work. They also talk about the attachment people feel to their work and their desire to be free to work without being subjected to the counterproductive pressures of profit requirements. This tension within the social relations of production has only been confirmed over the past weeks with the appearance of anti-work discourse, inspired by the prescient critiques of wage-labor made in the 1970s. One thing is certain: what is taking shape in the movement is the impossibility of reconciling the order to “Work!” shouted by government and employers with the actual work that everyone does to support themselves. A participant in the March 31 demonstration in Paris carried the slogan, “Work, yes, but for our future”—words that sum up much of the protest.


A uniquely non-violent movement, yet very repressed

Scattered, messy, refusing leaders and celebrities, the movement is sustained by the masses of people who make it. The diverse and often new forms it takes are signs that people are searching for new kinds of political organization. In the space of a month and a half, we have participated in the birth of new kinds of struggle but also in raising hundreds of issues for the broader public to consider, such as the vegan issue, the return of radical feminism, radical ecology, and horizontal democracy. This protest movement didn’t come from nowhere. If it refuses to take on a partisan label, it is clearly the product of protest movements and marginal practices that have been going on for the last twenty years. It also signals a political rebirth in many working-class neighborhoods. The area where I am active, Seine-Saint-Denis, a traditionally left-wing area to the north of Paris (now officially part of Greater Paris) is at the cutting edge of the struggle, even if a real connection still needs to be made between the lowest strata of the working class and those already involved, who are more from the lower-middle class and the middle class.

Large crowds provoke fear; as a result repression shows its face when people come together. Since the week of March 16, the police have not hesitated to intervene with tear gas, beatings, and arrests. There have already been several dozen wounded and hundreds of arrests across France (for the moment with only minor consequences, although we note the indictment of a fifteen-year-old high school student after a demonstration). April saw increased repression, with the police intervening even in peaceful demonstrations, fomenting semi-chaotic situations. Legal teams were set up to help arrested demonstrators and there were also calls to guard the demonstrations. The repressions remind us that France is still under a legal state of emergency in response to terrorist threats. The movement is thus a challenge to this military kind of order, imposed since January 2015 and reinforced in November 2015. In general assemblies everywhere, people are demanding an end to the state of emergency and opposing the government’s project of enshrining it in constitutional law.


How the protests, began, or how to force union leaders to fight

In February, opposition to the labor law began to spread on the internet in response to the “We’re worth more than that” initiative, with a petition that collected a million signatures in a week’s time. A date for a demonstration also appeared: March 9. The Intersyndicale, a coalition of eight major French unions, was forced to join this demonstration. For the first time in a long time, these protests have created a division between the labor unions demanding the complete rejection of the labor reform law and those wanting only to amend it. The union leadership’s usual strategy of unity was shattered by the surge of grassroots union demands. The members of Solidaires, reputedly the most combative union, forced the leadership to withdraw from the Intersyndicale, since it was out of the question for militant unionists to follow the wanderings of the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labor). Meanwhile, the rank and file members of France’s largest trade union, the CGT (General Confederation of Labor), are pushing its leadership to join the struggle.

Discontent quickly spread in the streets. On March 9, several hundred thousand people demonstrated, setting new records for some regions and towns, like Toulouse (despite the torrential rain). Already there were hopes for a mass movement but the unions then called for a demonstration on March 31, leaving striking high school students students to continue on their own in daily struggles. With the support of rank-and-file unionists, the students fought on to compensate for the cautious sluggishness of the union leadership. The entire month of March was devoted to building up the struggle. Finally, March 31 was a great success.


The origins of a student movement and young people’s reactions

The interval between March 9 and March 31 saw change in the public space: there were widespread leafleting and postering, meetings in companies and factories, struggles in the universities, etc. Universities were at the boiling point. In March, young people made their presence felt on the political scene, shutting down and occupying universities and high schools. This began at the University of Saint-Denis, where students had been on strike since March 8. On the weekend of March 19, around sixty student delegates met to discuss organizing the mobilization. The students formed a general assembly, declaring them self-organized; they refused to recognize leaders other than the ones they chose to representative them. The official student associations, which always step up to negotiate or speak to the media, did not represent the student movement. Though the issue of representation has haunted the French student movement since the 1990s, student strikers haven’t been able to debunk the student unions and associations claiming to be their representatives, which have taken over the media space to speak for the “youth.” This has led, in the current situation, to painful confrontations. The issue is simple: the student strikers want the total withdrawal of the labor reform law, while the official organizations tend to want to negotiate.

General Assembly, Place de la Republique, April 10.

Subjected to sudden repression—unusual for such social movements—the students chose to occupy the schools instead of the blockade, which was the achievement of the great student struggle of 2006. In these occupations, we are remaking the world, without being naïve about it. In Saint-Denis, the occupation provides an occasion for debate on all sorts of questions. A central concern is the relations of domination internal to the movement; one initiative is the creation of non-mixed spaces of gender and “race.” Toulouse has created a Social Justice Committee, which aims both to gain course credit without exams and to examine the power relations between teacher and student. It is easy to see that the labor law is far from the only concern. In addition to trying to be self-reflexive, the movement is searching for a future other than the one neoliberalism proposes. Starting with the questions, “Why work?” and “How should we work?” we are discussing questions such as reduction of working hours and unemployment insurance.

The movement has also inspired a revival of the movement of adjunct college professors, particularly doctoral students. College-level teaching is indeed precarious in France; most non-tenured faculty have only short-term contracts, are badly paid, and experience constant pressure. There are also discussions among student employees. Finally, the rather international character of this movement should be mentioned: there are many foreign students participating in these discussions, reminding us of the cross-border damage that capitalism has inflicted.


The Birth of Nuit Debout

Tensions moved up a notch on March 31, which brought a day of strikes and demonstrations and the beginning of a new initiative called Nuit Debout (Up All Night); there was also—with a total blockade of the Island of Mayotte—a département (administrative unit) of France 5000 miles to the east of Europe, off the eastern coast of Africa.

The idea of Nuit Debout came from a coalition of left-wing groups, which launched the slogan “On the 31, No One Goes Home.” They proposed an occupation of the Place de la République in Paris for that evening. At the general assembly, convened on the spot, people voted to continue the occupation and, despite the almost daily arrival of the police, the occupation continued night after night. While they began in Paris, the occupations quickly spread to the suburbs and other regions. These Nuits Debout have gathered together existing movements that had lacked any particular place to meet, as well as a shared goal that would bring them together. In Paris, several thousand people gathered every evening to build camps, often destroyed by the police the next morning. Here, time takes on a new shape; we no longer follow a classical calendar but live in a permanent month of March: March 32, 33, 50. The daily meet-up is at six p.m. (when the general assembly is held) where anyone can speak for two minutes on any topic. Commissions have been created to manage the movement. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people come to listen, and many remain to organize discussions, committees, actions. Everything is public. An Internet site,, lets absentees catch up on what they missed. During the general gssemblies minutes are taken and the assemblies are live-streamed. Radio and TV broadcasts make thoroughly transparent what’s happening in the square.

Most of the participants in Nuit Debout are people who have time to spare, but it also draws daytime workers who spend their evenings there. It also attracts many radical militants, who take the opportunity to organize more or less violent actions. Since April 9, there have been several nighttime riots, including attacks on banks and a Jaguar dealership. Nonetheless, Nuit Debout comes over rather well in the media, But it worries the politicians. How can you criticize groups of people for talking all night long? Especially the large numbers of people involved cause fear, and the spread of Nuit Debout to the suburbs is a bad sign.


A movement within the movement: things are happening in 93

Nuit Debout discussions often turn to to working-class neighborhoods. The Place de la République is in an upscale area of Paris, even if people come to the assemblies from far away. This creates a separation from working-class neighborhoods, where most of the people who will feel the brunt of the labor law live. Seine-Saint-Denis (in Département 93, the poorest département in France), however, is stirred up. Département 93 is the area that has launched the most Nuits Debout. The University of Saint-Denis is at the forefront of student mobilization; students have organized several demonstrations in the city of Saint-Denis. On April 13, parents of very young students coordinated an action, blocking nursery schools and elementary schools in every town in the département. In several cities, inter-professional general assemblies have been organized, where workers, residents, and students meet to discuss how to build the movement locally. The multiplication of general assemblies has brought about a multiplication of actions. The struggles occupy city spaces where institutional politics no longer receive much public support. This fermentation is the result of several years of local and underground struggles that developed in reaction to the unequal treatment that Département 93 has suffered. When the labor reform law appeared, these networks immediately sprang to life.


Nobody knows where we’re going, but it feels good.

Anyone who knows where all this is going is quite gifted. The government has already abandoned its projects of enshrining the state of emergency in the constitution and of depriving people convicted of terrorism of French nationality; some measures in the labor law, which go to the parliament in May, have been removed. The Intersyndicale picked April 28 and May as dates for demonstrations. Meanwhile, student or other strikers continue to agitate in preparation for a general strike against the labor reform law and maybe more. Railroad workers are threatening strike action against rules in their sector modeled on the proposed labor law. A general strike in Mayotte has inspired protestors and has put the issue of French colonization on the table. The Nuits Debout are going full-steam ahead for a total overhaul of the world. Whatever happens, the daily lives of thousands, if not millions, of people will have changed in a few months.

Translated by Janet Koenig.


Anouk Colombani

Anouk Colombani is a student in Seine-Saint-Denis.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2016

All Issues