Among the Nuitards
The bank windows had been smashed. On a surviving pane, held with a star of white masking tape, there was an image of a girl in a white T-shirt and jeans shouting ‘Rêve Générale’ into a loudhailer, a new interpretation of the old call for a ‘Grève Générale’. Instead of a general strike, or as well as one, a communal dream.
Every evening since 31 March, when there was a protest against proposed labour law reforms, there have been gatherings at place de la République in Paris to discuss new ways of doing politics, orat least of resisting the old ways. The Nuit Debout movement is an ‘extension du domaine de la lutte’: at first a way of continuing the struggle of the 31 March protest – the nuitards have extended the month beyond the Gregorian calendar; the evening I visited, Saturday 16 April, was designated 47 March – and then a way of extending a Parisian movement to the suburbs, to the whole of France, to Europe, to the world. ‘Le Monde ou Rien,’ as the nuitards of Répu have been putting it.
At one end of the square was a brightly lit café and a modern fountain resembling a huge rippling square puddle. At the other end, there was a ring of stalls covered with blue tarpaulins, with a ring of people standing inside it, around an oval of people sitting on the floor: several hundred smoking, drinking, shaking their arms in the pinkening sky in approbation or rolling their hands around each other in impatience. At the Assemblée Générale, anyone can have the mike for five minutes – men and women alternate as much as possible – to say anything they want. For the first hour I was there, members of the public alternated with people from the commissions – smaller, subject-specific discussion groups. They told us when they would be meeting, where (‘behind the welcome tent, next to the tree’), what they had been discussing and what they would discuss next. Another of the Debout movement’s aims is ‘la convergence des luttes’: the struggle would expand through time, and then through space, and then by standing in solidarity with other causes.
The Citizens’ Commission proposed a system of ‘positive trolling’ against the mainstream media. The bank’s windows had been broken the night before, and the press was presenting that as evidence that the two-week-old movement was already fracturing. (The cover of Sunday’s Aujourd-hui en France would show a masked man in black under the headline: ‘Nuit debout face à violence’.) The Assemblée kept talking about violence. Someone began by saying it was a ‘plaisir énorme’ to be here from Lille, but how could we raise awareness in the people coming out of Batman v.Superman at the cinema across the road? He ended by singing, to the tune of the Marseillaise: ‘Videz les magasins! Achetons! Achetons!’ Another man said he didn’t find it ‘good or bad to break windows, I find it insufficient’. Someone else said there were worries about the way women were treated, and about being told to calm down about it: ‘J’en ai marre de me calmer!’ A dark-haired manwith his chin tucked into his chest swept up cigarette butts.
We were told that a strike by the cleaning women at the Novotel hotel group, who worked eight hours a day but were only paid for four, had ended in victory, including payment for the strike days. Maria, dashing through the crowd with an orange tote bag under her arm, proposed a Europe Commission for connecting with Syriza and Podemos, and an Agriculture Commission to discuss the Common Agricultural Policy and healthy food. The microphone cut out. ‘Censure!’ shouted a man sitting beside me. A young woman asked for people who weren’t students to march with them; older men cited the constitution and called France ‘le pays de droits de l’homme’. A woman asked if anyone had a spare bed or sofa to put up a couple of 14-year-old refugees for a night before the authorities’ offices opened again on Monday.
Marissa from Occupy Wall Street spoke of finding ‘the same spirit of 2011’ here, and of the importance of speaking because Obama and Hollande only speak for corporate interests. The Assemblée was speaking ‘against capitalism and liberal democracy’, she said. ‘You have the power!’ The Occupy movements in New York, Hong Kong and London, and the Indignados in Spain, both haunt and bolster Nuit Debout. In the Nouvel Observateur, Fabien Escalona rebutted the claim that these insurrectionary moments come to nothing: five years after Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders called for a new Glass-Steagall Act in Washington Square; four years after the occupation of universities across the UK, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party.
Paris was the first city I lived in as an adult, and I remember it as impassive and beautiful, not dirty, provisional and radical. I sat crossed-legged too, shook my hands in the air too, laughedtoo. We were patient with points of order, and with anger, and with those who couldn’t help rambling. We spoke with our arms instead of raising our voices. ‘Allons-y, bières fraîches!’ a man calledout, wheeling a shopping trolley of Kronenbourg and ice behind him.
The daylight had gone, the clouds dissipated to a cold midnight clear and orange street lamps competed with the red neon of the chain bistros and the green of the pharmacie. There aren’t set prices at the Resto Debout. I paid €1.80 for a plastic cup of chai, with green cardamom pods and slivers of peeled ginger. The clear plastic warmed and bent softly as I walked around the stalls: there wasa radio station broadcasting the Assemblée Générale every night (Radio Debout), a drawing station (Dessin Debout), a Falafel stall (Falafel Debout), a TV station (TV Debout), a bookswapping library (Biblio Debout), a campsite for homeless people (Campement Debout), a lost property box containing keys on an Eiffel Tower keychain, a mobile phone, a hairbrush, a make-up bag and a portable phone charger (Objets Trouvés Debout). There were desks for a Commission Vote Blanc (spoil your ballot), a Commission Françafrique, Commission Planète.
Someone had made small photocopied pictures of Rimbaud and John Lennon and other people I didn’t recognise and pasted them all over a tree. There were men drumming, a tiny rave under a blue tarpaulin, and two rappers under another tarpaulin, railing against the bosses to whoops and clapping. The Feminist Commission was meeting with the LGBT Commission – one young woman leaned beautifully in an enormous shaggy white fake fur against a lamppost – but even with a loudhailer they couldn’t be heard over the drums. I think they were talking about pronouns. At the Commission Travail, they huddled even closer to argue without a loudhailer. Soap bubbles rose on the air.
Towards 11.45 p.m., after a vote on whether or not to engage with the media denouncing the Debout movement for violence (they decided to send a short press release saying they wouldn’t send press releases: that is what Radio Debout and TV Debout are for), the mood loosened, or heightened, or at any rate changed. ‘We’re the casseurs?’ people asked. The real violence came from big business and the police. ‘Violence is a response,’ someone shouted out to the idea that Nuit Debout must respond to media requests. What is the role of violence in a movement? What is the correct response to state violence? Other people seemed dreamier, perhaps as drunk as the rest of us were. ‘We have something here that’s beautiful,’ someone said. Another: ‘If we’re here, something will happen.’
The prefécture and the police – their vans had been in the square since 8 p.m. – had been promised that everyone would go home ‘gently and without violence’, and the microphone would be turned off at midnight. Plans for 48 March had already been made: meet at 6 p.m. to share ideas for a utopian future, and at 9 p.m. to watch Avenir, a film by Cyril Dion (not, as the crowd misheard to baffled laughter, Céline Dion). The last thing in my notebook is a list of the nouns I kept hearing: ‘jeune generation’, ‘monde’, ‘paix’, ‘utopie’, ‘amour’, ‘joie’, droits’, ‘différences’. We were going home, but only in order to come back tomorrow.