Several nights superimpose themselves over the Parisian Nuit Debout [Night Standing, or Up All Night], which began on March 32, [sic]1 so that the night would never end, a sum of singularities and meetings difficult to summarize or to fix. Here are some of these moons, following no precise schedule, with no certainty to enlighten or illuminate, with no possibility of updating. A humble reminder of smiling awakenings, sprinkled with obscure omissions.
Contrary to the cosmic order, there are some days in history that do not rise up. In order to appear, these new things disguise themselves and possibly their borrowed dress, yesterday’s, will stifle them. This fragile moment is also that of human decision that will sort among possible destinies. To this instant, which lets us catch a glimpse of a transformation, corresponds the trace of a few words that announce, through a chink in the system, the color of a different culture, with a different mode of speech.
—Michel de Certeau, “The Power to Speak,” 1968
At first we are stunned. Because we have other pots in the fire, because we recall precedents, and because you never know what will take before it takes. We don’t take the plunge right away, we dip in our toes. We must say, we have the strange sensation of swimming in a hostile sea at the Place de la République, this Haussmannian model of a nonplace, where there are still fumes left by the heads of state who marched after the attacks. We observe those who come to remember the victims, for example, this woman in a chic coat sweeping around commemorative candles. Above her, Marianne, the Republican statue of stratified history, between ethylic flights and cries of revolt. Next to inscriptions in homage to Charlie or to the Bataclan dead, we can read: “Eat the rich,” “Down with the State, the Cops and UNEF (Union Nationale des Étudiants de France) “Solidarity with Refugees.” These strata say it better than a long speech: the order of things has changed.
At first, no one knows where this much talked about Nuit Debout came from. We think: Occupy, Tahrir Square, the Movimiento 15-M (Spain’s anti-austerity movement), the Puerta del Sol. Can what seemed unimaginable only a month ago be happening now? Under a state of emergency, when the reactionary Right had taken over demonstrations, with years of “greed is good” winter setting the tone for our political aspirations, when we had less hope than ever, would there be anyone in this stagnant capital ready to occupy a square and open the windows of Spring?
Night falls and stalls are set up: a anarchist bookstore, a sustenance station, tables for left economists and environmentalists, another for the undocumented, and a tent for the Right to Housing group, which obtained a permit for the protest. We hear merguez sizzling, beer cans being crushed. It’s pleasant, but after shock comes mistrust: will Nuit Debout be just another leftist fun fair—an empty escape? In half of the immense space, there is dancing, staggering, feasting. Old punks, ravers, street bums, drunk dropouts, high-schoolers, players on the djembe and sound systems. A small cart houses the DJ. A subtitle, scrawled in marker: “Nothing can stop people who dance.” We’ve got the dance, Emma, but where’s the revolution?2
Maybe on the other half of the square. We make our way through the crowd. A standing semi-circle hides a sitting sea of people. Facing the stage and speakers, raised hands move in coded waves: we recognize the style of discussions from the Spanish General Assemblies after 2011 and the post-Seattle, anti-globalization summits—wiggling hands for approval, crossed arms in the air for radical opposition, thumb and index finger wiggling for a direct response, etc. So many ways to express ourselves without booing, cheering, or interrupting speeches.
Though the night is chilly, we are immediately warmed up, sitting among strangers, listening to energetic speeches, one leading to the next. Some speak hesitantly and briefly; others are lyrical, explosive, laughing. Esch is different. But everybody listens. At times absurd, often striking, always risky, a succession of first timers interspersed with more professional discourse. Migrant collectives, slices of life, the Greek ex-finance minister Varoufakis, third-rate slam poets, old-timers giving obsolete talks, kids from the projects, or members of that night’s committees. It’s the “Feminism” committee’s turn: “We’re still getting groped. How can we make women feel comfortable here? Everyone must work together so that Nuit Debout remains welcoming! Women who want to talk about this can join me behind the stage, and we’ll gather someplace.”
A dozen women move through the assembly to join her. A moderator’s announcement interrupts the scene: “Police are blocking musicians on the other side of the square.” In no time, the General Assembly empties out to go pressure the cops. Ten minutes later everyone returns. On the ground, we hear the waves pick up from those listening to the Assembly: “It’s good to talk.” “Why did we wait so long to do this?”
Towards 1pm the next day, the clouds finally let some rays through. Among the tents being set up, small circles are slowly forming. In the center of each, a cardboard sign announces the topic to be discussed. There are committees: “Freedom of Expression,” “LGBT,” or “Clinic;” and “unofficial” discussions: “Antisemitism,” “Let’s go Underground” or “How Not to Become a Party.” We sit near “Police Violence and Racial Profiling.”
After a public lecture about the state of the law comes discussion. Abdallah, an old man with a thin white beard, has so much trouble waiting for his turn to speak that he prances about. “I call on old persons like myself to put themselves between the police and our children and grandchildren to prevent their being stopped. Stop being afraid!” A thirty-something’s turn arrives: “To be stopped and frisked? Four times a day, arms and legs spread against the wall, that doesn’t reinforce a sense of social belonging. And when you refuse to produce papers, you get arrested. How can we cope if we end up being humiliated no matter what? See it a little from my point of view, eh, not yours,” he says to a judge, a member of the Union of Magistrates.
In another circle, an undocumented person challenges—which is good—the “Undocumented Refugees” committee, which today has a dozen people. “A mess,” he spits out angrily. Two punks nearby yell at him, “Take it easy, you must speak calmly.” He flares up, “You, you don’t understand anything!” He leaves with the air of a nobleman. A failed encounter. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Away from this commotion, a woman carries a sign indicating that she is an expert on Zorro and early 20th century California, to which she dedicated her dissertation. A pale, nerdy guy joins her and a wonky and absurd dialogue begins. He brings up old video games and she responds by talking about Bernardo. These two need to speak to each other: it’s as simple as that. Soon, he talks about leaving school, saying that the movement is a breath of fresh air. He’s almost crying. Behind him a microphone begins to sputter: “Raphael is going to talk about his experiences in Rojava.” A tall blond guy comes forward, haggard looking, with a shoulder-length ponytail. He talks about hospitals in Kobanî, the struggles there against Daesh, infamous brothels of geopolitics, Kurdish fighters and their bravery. He has dozens of passionate listeners. And so it continues for the whole day, large and small causes mingling between personal and invigorating messages.
After a dozen nights and days at this place, one thing is certain: what is happening here is not a gathering of “yuppies.” Nothing is idyllic, but everything or almost everything is being tried out or experimented with, clumsily but sometimes with beginner’s luck, precarious for the most part. In short, it’s bustling. On the square’s periphery, workshops are in progress: “Gardening,” sharing experience about seedlings; “Gender and Sexuality,” which spends most of its time explaining the concept of women-only debates to a huddle of guys; even “Mobile Furniture,” about making tables and benches on wheels out of wooden pallets, sanded and painted.
Another evening, another General Assembly. On the agenda, a divisive topic: the “violence” during the demonstrations against the Labor Law. The media and politicians called upon Nuit Debout to take a position on this to such an extent that the “Communication” committee was instructed to prepare a statement. After discussions and voting, a second draft is rejected by the Assembly as too ambiguous. The Assembly’s majority refuses to have the Nuit Debout publicly condemn the breaking of bank windows or the demonstrators’ defensive strategies in dealing with police violence. The committee’s draft writer is enraged: “This makes the 48th time that we work on the text,” he explains, “we’re burnt out!” He invites those who criticize it to meet and start from scratch. Here we go again, over fifty people arguing for three intense hours. The result: It’s not Nuit Debout’s place to condemn anything, and more importantly, it’s not Nuit Debout’s place to take an official position on such matters.
No representatives, no press releases, no submission to media pressures, this is what gives breathing space to the movement. The space remains a place of encounters, of differing opinions, of incompatible experiences or further strategies. This rejection of the old world goes with a refusal to align with the old logic, and actions as well as discourse are elaborated in the course of contradictory discussions. Yet the movement doesn’t forget where it comes from, or its political basis — in the General Assemblies, in the committees, or in an unexpected encounter with taxi drivers who came after work to support the occupation. “Precarity affects everybody, as we can see with the Uberization of our business. We must all struggle against the Labor Law. We old guys will help you, it will not pass,” declares Milan, a driver and veteran legionnaire, today seduced by other battles. If the few people still present at this late hour are delighted by such a common ground, it will take a long night to reach agreement on thorny issues. The unemployed see themselves treated by some as “entitled,” and shouting matches resume. This is a necessary step: for those who usually ignore or despise each other to confront each other.
After the shock, the mistrust, the curiosity, and the enthusiasm, at the edge of night, eyes baggy from clouds of tear gas and lack of sleep, we want to see things more clearly. Where did the night begin and how will it end? Who decides what actions to take, what discussions to put on the agenda? It’s well known that François Ruffin and Frédéric Lordon led the initiative to occupy the square, on March 31, but we don’t see them hanging around. And too much is brewing to believe that they are pulling the strings somewhere over in the shade of the plane trees. So we ask ourselves, how do the evenings’ General Assemblies get organized, these hubs of each Nuit Debout?
In the early days, we voted on actions to be taken collectively: organizing forms of solidarity, taking care of accommodations and facilities for the square, questions to tackle together. Then it was voted to no longer vote. “It was too arbitrary and unthinking with people coming in the evening to watch the show,” says Gérard, an old anarchist in a black cap, involved in the “Action” committee. “It takes time to reflect and to get a sense of what is happening to vote, otherwise, it’s the democracy of tourists, of big mouths, and of professional militants.” Those present are always asked to raise their hands, but consultation has replaced decision-making. Which resolved nothing, since a massive vote continues to serve those who want that to demonstrate popular approval. At the same time, energy is concentrated in the committees, where voting continues to decide on texts, actions, or structures. As a result, the committees have deserted the General Assembly, which little by little has been emptied of political content in order to become an open mic with a social beat that is quickly boring.
After a month of occupation, rain, tension, and police violence, the central topic of the “Democracy and General Assembly” committee has become: how to revive the stalled General Assembly? Many of its participants have followed events from the beginning. Here we enter the realm of “Protocol,” where each point is weighed and reweighed, submitted to everyone’s vote and opinion. After hours of palaver on the importance of creating sub-committees to speed up debates or to rename a committee,3 a regular loses her temper: “I’m beginning to be afraid of this escalation of procedures that create sub-committees on top of sub-committees in order to forget or bury problems.”
Endgame: a list circulates for those who want to take charge of the evening. The General Assembly’s time is divided into rounds of three turns of free speech and then three turns of committees, with two sessions, 6 – 9 pm and 9 – 11pm. Several roles are defined: moderator, facilitator, speaker, timekeeper (to check that no speaker takes more than two minutes). Those who register tonight are doing it for the first time, proof that debates in the General Assembly are not locked up by a handful of aspiring politicos, as some rumors in the square would have it.
We’re moving forward. New big demonstrations are coming and the struggle against the Labor Law and its source must continue. Besides the “Logistics” committee, necessary for daily amenities in the square, other especially active committees are “Action,” “Converging Struggles,” and “General Strike.”4 We will spend our last nights with this one. During a meeting on “The Next Step” held at the Labor Exchange, the group that calls itself Fakir had proposed establishing a connection between the Nuit Debout movement and the labor unions on May 1, in the form of an evening meeting and celebration. A text broadly following François Ruffin’s proposal was quickly adopted by the “Converging Struggles” committee and approved in the General Assembly.
For many, however, this is going too fast: under the pretext of efficiency and urgency, the Ruffin plan skips a few democratic steps: We haven’t discussed the modalities of intervention in the square by the unions, normally ferocious in their respect for traditional etiquette. The “General Strike” committee then takes charge of consulting with union and non-union workers, supporters, activists, libertarians, bystanders, committee members, etc. The first collective decision: push back the date of the convergence to March 59 (April 28), the day chosen by some active groups of workers for a renewed strike.
Then come the debates. “We have to lay down our own rules,” a speaker interjects, “We will not abandon our principles to trade union leaders.” From one of the square’s faithfuls, in his turn: “You imagine the unions bursting on the scene with their balloons and flags? We managed to preserve Nuit Debout from political partisanship, and you are going to fuck up everything by trying to win over the leaders of the CGT [Confederation General du Travail (the Communist union)] or the FO [Force Ouvrière (Trotskyist)]! This is the beginning of the end!” An old veteran responds: “Without the unions, no mass demonstrations, no general strike! They need to be overwhelmed by people, by us, but we also need them to strengthen the balance of power. Let them come without our imposing a dress code on them, and when they are here, we will tell them what we think of their hot air balloons.” A postman adds his two cents: “Stop with your simple-minded anti-unionism. Unionism is first of all about solidarity and mutual aid among exploited workers. And I, for example, feel as much a unionist as a Nuit Deboutist”
After three days of experimenting with direct democracy, a compromise is reached: in the context of solidarity between university and high school students and precarious and struggling workers, Nuit Debout invites the unions and their representatives to have discussions with the People’s Assembly, with the same rules for everyone. On the 28th, after the demonstration, there is a series of speeches. First the organized high school students, delighted to have a “better” anti-CPE [Contrat première embauche: First Employment Contract] movement; next, the university students: “Repression will not wait for our commitment. We lack not anger but common action!” Next, rank-and-file unionists like the CGT Information Committee, asserting that “We won’t be satisfied with the withdrawal of this law! We are going beyond that”; and some precarious workers’ collectives from Montreuil: “Let’s stop arguing for precarious full-time employment. And thinking that unemployment is evil. Not working is also having the time to think and to struggle.”
A striking scene: the CGT’s leader Philippe Martinez takes the floor after a CNT [Spanish aracho-syndicalist union] delegation, with the same amount of time to speak. Unheard of! He begins with a pious wish: that “general strike” is more than just a slogan. Then he takes it back: a strike can only be decided by general assemblies in each enterprise in struggle. A crowd of about a thousand people then chants, “General strike! General strike!” And Fatima, a former CGT militant, gives organizing lessons to a timid general secretary: “No, Mr. Martinez, it’s not correct to say that each enterprise has the right to decide if they will join. If you want things to move, you have to listen to what comes from the rank and file, encourage daily meetings, organize strike funds, and encourage times like these, where we are all on the same level.”
On that night, Nuit Debout unexpectedly wins a gamble: to break through the walls of labor union associations and workplaces, to extend the Place de la République. This is a speech that calls for action. Actions come: after students and unionists block access to the port at Gennevilliers [the largest in the Parisian region], a large group from the Assembly left that night to join theater workers on strike (from stage hands to actors, all irregularly employed) who had been thrown out of the Odéon Theater, all the while huts were constructed in the center of the Place de la republique. Later police batons fell with blind brutality. The next day, with renewed vigor, came solidarity with striking McDonalds workers, postal workers, domestic workers, and migrants. Whatever happens to this movement, it will not end. The damage is done. March 2016 will remain the longest month, the one where we forged a new tool for smashing more forcefully and rebuilding more joyously. Do or die!
- Inspired by the revolutionary calendar created in 1793, calendar dates were changed after the occupation of the Place République on March 3, so that there was no longer the month of April. April 28, for example, became March 59, etc.
- A reference to the Russia-American anarchist Emma Goldman’s (1869 – 1940) great slogan: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution!”
- “Democracy in the square” will win the vote.
- These three committees have since merged under the name of Lutte Debout [Fight Standing Up].
Translated by JANET KOENIG from CQFD 143 (May 2016); see http://cqfd-journal.org/Nuit-Debout-le-mois-le-plus-long.