La Nuit Debout: the new French Indignants?

La Nuit Debout: the new French Indignants?

Since the protest against the draft labour reform began on the 31st of March, the Place de la République in Paris has been overcrowded every night. Under the name “La Nuit Debout” (meaning “Up all night”), youth, teachers, activists and refugees are gathering to talk about the future of the French democracy.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, grass-roots movements are emerging around the World: The Arab Spring in the Middle-East, Occupy Wall Street in New York and the Spanish movement Los Indignados in Madrid are just a few examples. Each and every one of those movements was protesting  their current political, economic and democratic system.

Gathering on streets and squares, the gathered people are aiming at “changing the system” and creating the society of tomorrow. In the month since its inception, the French movement La Nuit Debout has already been designated as the French version of Los Indignados, a movement that has since become the political party Podemos. Is this comparison justified, and more importantly, is a final political outcome foreseeable?

Occupying the public space by promoting dialogue and solidarity

Both Los Indignados and La Nuit Debout focus on encouraging direct and participative democracy. On both the Puerta del Sol and the Place de la République, the gathering aims at promoting the return of dialogue and solidarity through interactions. It highlights a true will to participate in politics through means of action that are democratic and open to everyone, such as general assembly, freedom of speech, occupation of public space.

The meetings are public and everyone is free to participate. A moderator gives the time to speak and propositions are approved by a qualified majority of 80%. At the end of each general meeting a report is made available to all. Citizens are placed at the centre of the debate and have the last words to say on any decision made.

The limits of representative democracy

The will expressed by La Nuit Debout is to build something else, hoping that a new construction will destroy traditional politics. In this regard, La Nuit Debout highlights the limits of representative democracy. The French political landscape is outdated and today the left/right division is arguably obsolete.

People are on the streets because they do not feel rightly represented, and they do not think that the public interest is the primary objective for French politicians. That is why they are drawn to direct and representative democracy. However, they do not want to hold power because their relationship with power is damaged. But the question is: Is change possible without holding power?

Common despair but different economic situation

However, despite these similarities, there are some key differences between the Spanish and French movements.

France is undergoing a growing climate of fear, social injustice and  massive unemployment as well as a political class increasingly disconnected from the population. In this context, it seems astonishing that the youth has not mobilized before. 

However, the major difference between France and Spain is that the economic crisis did not have the same impact in the two countries. During the emergence of Los Indignados in Spain, the general unemployment rate reached 25% of the population and the rate of youth unemployment stood at 55%With a youth unemployment at 24,60%, the French economic situation cannot be compared to the disastrous Spanish context. Spain’s unemployment numbers undeniably permitted the rise of the social movement and the arrival of Podemos on the political scene.

Becoming a political party: The example of Podemos

One of the main differences between France and Spain’s social movement is that Los Indignados successfully transformed into a political party. The real success of Los Indignados was to transform the conversation into a viable political proposition. On March 11th 2014, the political party Podemos was created and became a true political expansion of the social movement.

During the general elections in 2015, Podemos was elected as the 3rd party of Spain with 20% of votes, resulting in the election of 69 deputies as well as 14 senators and the nomination of the mayors of Madrid and Barcelona. The same transformation is unlikely to happen in France, as the set-up in the Republic does not favour the emergence of a citizen party that does not follow the traditional divide between the left and right.

Transforming La Nuit Debout

La Nuit Debout suffers from a lack of diversity. Most people in the movement are white and few come from the most disadvantaged social classes. The movement also needs to spread out beyond urban centres to the suburbs and rural areas.

The movement will only develop if it has the ability of radical decentralization. It cannot be a place of convergence of struggles if it puts a distance between it and those concerned. If the social movement does not spread beyond Paris, the movement is doomed to fail.

The need to enter into the institutional game

La Nuit Debout promotes horizontality. There is no hierarchy and by extension no leader nor organizational structure or political guidelines. They even reject the comparisons with Podemos because they do not want to be assimilated to a political party, which would mean to enter into the “institutional game” they denounce.

However, if they do not structure themselves, they could suffer the same fate as the Occupy Wall Street movement. Self-managed, participative, without leaders and without a political platform, it died out in 2012. In order to ensure its survival, La Nuit Debout needs to find the right balance between horizontality and structure.

Of course, it is too soon to forecast its future, but if La Nuit Debout does want to change the political system, it will be forced to join politics sooner or later by finding its leader and defining its political guidelines.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Jason Dozier

Jason specializes in crisis management and the organizational development of terrorist groups. He currently works for the Embassy of Malta in Paris where he serves as Executive Assistant to the Ambassador. Jason holds a Master’s in Terrorism, Security and Society at King’s College London concentrating on a comparative analysis between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. He also obtained a Bachelor in International Relations from the Institute of International Relations in Paris.