After Being Up All Night, We Wake up with a Political Strike1
Living in a moment is always pleasanter than writing about it— it’s always risky to draw conclusions about situations still evolving or to speculate about what they will become. For over three months, Nuit debout (“Up All Night”) has been a new kind of spontaneous social movement along the lines of Occupy and Spain’s M15 movement. It has grown to an unanticipated size and importance while building on characteristic features of French society. I won’t go back over its development or its collective spirit. The two texts already published in the May and June issues of “Field Notes,” by Anouk Colombani and by Ferdinand Cazalis and Emilien Bernard, have provided sufficient detail and clarity for us to grasp the essence and dynamism of these mobilizations.
But at the risk of repeating what has been written elsewhere, I’ll touch on a few aspects of the context in which this event took place. In the last few years, French society has lived through an atmosphere that is crushing to the spirit and fosters paralysis in the face of the violence imposed by the current Socialist government, in perfect continuity with the previous right-wing governments and in line with the dominant neoliberal economic policies. The violence is that of the economic crisis: increasing job insecurity and impoverishment of wage workers, with the consequent lowering of living standards; the disruption and dismantling of essential public services; the distress of young people in the projects, plagued by exclusion, social rejection, and constant police repression. The horror of recent acts of terrorism has only added to the climate of fear and helplessness.
The State of Emergency declared by those responsible for the conditions in which we live has created an even more oppressive situation. Fortifying the repressive state presence to reassure frightened citizens seems to have become the expedient way to govern in today’s authoritarian democracies, where room for reform has disappeared from the capitalist system in recession. In early December 2015, the violent repression of demonstrations against the useless piety of the COP21 (2015 UN Climate Change Conference held in Paris) confirmed that the State of Emergencywas designed more to maintain social peace than to oppose bloody attacks by enemies of the French state. The police force has shown itself to be too ineffective and disorganized to prevent such actions, as the current investigations of terrorist attacks prove. Indeed, it is easier for the police to kill a young pacifist opposing the construction of a dam in southwest France than to confront militarily organized, fanatical commandos.2
Nevertheless, Nuit debout began in Paris just a few days after the Brussels attacks, at the end of the first large student demonstrations against the proposed Labor Law, justly perceived as favoring job insecurity. The occupation of the Place de la République, which began on March 31, attracted a large and passionate crowd. The initiative for the occupation came from outside the large organizations, parties or unions, even if a few activists from some of the independent left unions took part. Nuit debout’s first great victory was to break the millstone of the fears and political inertia imposed by the State of Emergency. People were now speaking out and their happiness was plain to see in the streets, in demonstrations, in discussions.
After years of “reforms” tailored to benefit the capitalist class, the introduction of the Labor Law was the last straw. The Socialist apparatchiks revealed themselves to be—as much as those on the right—faithful agents of the corporate powers that truly run the country. The Socialist politicians cynically defended the project by arguing that to facilitate firing workers is a good step to more easily start hiring them. This raised strong opposition, even in their own ranks, and provoked larger and larger street demonstrations across the country. Classic union marches (as always, sad and fatalistic) were overwhelmed by multitudes who increasingly found themselves more in tune with the spirit of Nuit debout than with old union slogans. The government’s massive use of the police contributed to heightening the demonstrators’ determination. Having bought the cooperation of a few minor unions, the government had decided to enact the law directly, without going through parliament: another proof of the curious democratic sentiments of the apparatchiks of social democracy. By so doing, the government created an unanticipated situation—so sure were these politicians of the eternal passivity of the exploited.
Meanwhile, Nuit debout has evolved. The phenomenon is heterogeneous and crisscrossed by diverse and opposing tendencies, which precisely proves its richness in Paris and pretty much everywhere else. The Place de la République has increasingly taken on the character of an agora, with endless discussions. Nuit debout has become a place to drop by daily, a hangout for thousands of Parisians, commuters, salaried workers, unemployed, the young and not so young who listen, talk out, get informed, get bored, discuss, and maybe buy some books that never interested them before. Inevitably, the square has also become a fairground where political sects intersect with “theoreticians” who like to hear themselves speak, with self-proclaimed gurus handing out ready-made solutions for the future. Significantly, interventions by groups or sects always remain hidden, so strong is the distrust of political manipulation. Militants from political organizations whose goal is electoral power, like the Spanish Podemos, are definitely busy at work in the square, but their activity can only really begin after the mobilization ends. Also inevitable is the more or less open presence of the confused nationalist-populist right, which the majority of demonstrators usually quickly dismiss.
As the days went by, it became clear to many that the fetishism of democratic procedures—to be expected, given the crisis of democratic representation and the creeping authoritarianism of political life—leads to helplessness when it is separated from the ability to take action. Certainly, imaginative actions have been organized outside of the square, like the occasions when activists invited themselves over to the Prime Minister’s very chic apartment for a drink. Each time the police intervened, trapping a large group of young people in these joyous but risky (given the potential violence of the repression) confrontations. Public space is the space of the State, and if large numbers of people want to use it momentarily to demonstrate their feelings, to show collective strength, the mercenaries of order can always take it back, at the cost of spilling blood if necessary.
In a few days, Nuit debout became more than just a Parisian event. As the movement has spread geographically, it has taken diverse forms, all unified by a strong opposition to the present social situation and, beyond that, even to the violence of the capitalist system. In large provincial cities like Rennes, the mobilization is very strong and numerous actions have been carried out besides occupations. Democracy from below is more than just a formality; rather, it’s the moment of taking of action. Imaginative actions involving blockades and demonstrations are taking place in many regions and small towns. As a friend put it, “These mobilizations in the streets and in the squares are interdependent; they nourish each other with their own particular idiosyncrasies. The square offers a base for actions in the street, but without the street actions the square itself would not have as much intensity.”
The development most fruitful for the future has been the rapport established between Nuit debout and ongoing struggles, whose representatives come to give reports to the general assembly at the Place de la République. In Paris as elsewhere, many employed and unemployed workers who spend time at the Place de la République and its assemblies have constantly expressed their need to go out of the squares to talk, listen, and support the struggles of refugees trapped in urban jungles, striking workers in small companies, health workers and railway workers facing the dismantling of their legal protections. This contact is always good even if it’s clear that, for now, most workers remain prisoners of a union mindset. They are protesting, but do not seem ready to join a movement whose contours and political perspectives they have trouble perceiving. Whatever the case, this effort to expand has become the main driving force of Nuit debout. It is the expression of a collective awareness that occupations of public spaces, though important, are insufficient, that people must attack the system where it reproduces itself, at the point of production. And for that, it is necessary to involve those who make the system function. In Paris, actions taken in the suburbs, where most of the poor live, have become part of this effort at expansion. A good example is the creation of inter-professional assemblies in the neighborhoods north of Paris, which are open to unionized and nonunionized workers, and bring about demonstrations, blockages, actions to build support and strike funds (see Colombani’s text in the May 2016 “Field Notes”). In short, Nuit debout has continued to evolve while keeping its anti-system spirit.
It is impossible to fully assess how the ideas and spirit of Nuit debout have spread, how they are infecting other aspects of society. But the open questioning of systemic values strongly reflects today’s profound social discontent. The major strength of Nuit debout has been to move us from fear and paralysis over terrorism, from belief in the State as a benevolent protector, towards a questioning of the state of society. In a short period of time, we have traveled a long way from Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”) and applauding the police to demonstrations where we shouted: “Tout le monde déteste le travail et sa police.” (“Everyone hates work and its police.”) The government was not mistaken in launching propaganda campaigns to restore the image of the police force of a gentle France, presented as the victim of a few enraged kids—here where the number of seriously wounded due to police action during demonstrations continues to rise, and where police violence throughout France results in more than fifty civilian casualties per year. Whatever happens next, Nuit debout has also broken with the “realism” of politics and the economy, that is so say, it rejects accepting the political and economic system as an immutable reality. “Economiste = triste” (“Economist = dismal”), warns a poster. The movement finds its spirit in questioning the system we are forced to live in, along with the subsidiary question: in what kind of world do we want to live? As a slogan declares: “On n’a pas peur de l’avenir, c’est votre avenir qui a peur de nous.” (“We are not afraid of the future, it’s your future that’s afraid of us.”)
By mid May, the two major unions, the FO (Force Ouvrière) and the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) decided to launch a few strikes with the support of a few small unions like the SUD (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques, a trade union group) whose numerous militants were already present in the squares and involved in direct actions from the beginning. In confronting the government over the Labor Law, union apparatuses are pursuing their own agenda, but they are also finding themselves prisoners of a situation where Nuit debout has revived certain expectations. Indeed, the law introduces provisions that threaten the survival of the large unions. In particular, there is one permitting the hours of work to be decided (“negotiated”) company by company, without being submitted for branch contract approval. In the current recession, this opens the door to extortion, trading employment for local concessions by the workers. In one blow, this would destroy the big unions’ negotiating power at the national level and their consequent implementation of agreements. The CGT, therefore, threw onto the scales its last bastion of working-class support, refineries and petroleum distribution, the ports, garbage removal, and, most sensitive, nuclear power plants.
This political strike raises contradictory issues. On the one hand, the CGT is responding to the desires ardently expressed in Nuit debout assemblies: to enlarge the conflict, to block business as usual, and to move towards a general strike. Suddenly, the CGT has positioned itself at the center of the struggle in which it originally had absolutely no part, and in this way is attempting to burnish its image for its rank and file, for the most militant workers and young people in revolt. On the other hand, this union manoeuver muffles the impact of the fresh content that Nuit debout has allowed to blossom throughout society, because it returns to the old terrain of political negotiations and eliminates the subversive dimensions of systemic criticism expressed in the squares.
It’s a gamble for the CGT. The major test for the union lies in the ability of its leadership to carry out this operation without losing control of it, to be able to contain the rage of its rank and file. Today’s CGT is not what it used to be, after the Second World War, or even after May ’68. The union is still controlled at the top by bureaucrats tied to the Communist Party or formerly under its influence. With the party itself in decline, divided by reformist tendencies, we may ask if it’s the Communist Party that still controls the CGT leadership or vice versa. But where the union has changed the most is in the composition of its rank and file, in the sociology of its militants, who are today the most combative and determined workers, often ready for direct action. There always are, of course, some diehard unionists and Trotskyist delegates, but, in general, union militants today are much more independent of the bureaucracy than in the past, having a spirit of initiative that keeps them at a greater distance from leadership instructions. Nuit debout’s ideas, the insistence on democracy from below, the rejection of the capitalist system, speak to many union militants, like the idea of blocking the economy by pickets on highways, on the rails, in train stations, airports, and commercial centers. This convergence of militant unionists and Nuit debout people was already apparent when the CGT’s rank and file strongly protested the violent interventions made by the CGT’s security service—sometimes tolerated by the police—against some angry young people in the demonstrations. From then on, in fact, many militants no longer hesitated to demonstrate outside of union processions and confront the police. Many unionists are among those arrested.
Philippe Martinez, the current head of the CGT, felt the need to come and explain himself to a Nuit debout assembly in Paris (see the text by Cazalis and Bernard in the June 2016 “Field Notes”).In several sectors over the last few years (notably railway and transport), the CGT has found itself in competition with the young SUD union group, which has a very combative orientation and is open to radical sensibilities and practices. The Socialist government is aware of these changes in the union landscape and makes use of them in order to prevail, hoping to further weaken the old unions, and thereby also offering an extra bonus to employers. This is also the aim of the government’s strong propaganda campaign against the CGT, almost reminiscent of the Cold War period. Concrete expressions of this new permeability between the CGT base and radicalized young people are visible in the number of blockades and picket lines organized all over France by a joyous and bubbly mixture of workers and people mobilized in the spirit of Nuit debout. Needless to say, all these developments were unthinkable, not only in May ’68, but even only a few years ago.
Obviously, those who see Nuit debout as a breath of fresh air gladly support the involvement of the CGT’s rank and file in the political strike. As we know, the bureaucratic interests of the CGT apparatus fall far short of the aspirations expressed in the movement, which risks being smothered at any moment by political issues. Nuit debout, in its heterogeneity, is a new type of movement searching by trial and error, with obvious contradictions and shortcomings, for a solution to the nightmare of the capitalist system and its crisis of representation. The CGT, on the other hand, remains an old-world institution that functions within the framework of the existing system, which it proposes to improve. The meeting of these two is a marriage of convenience. However, as we all know—including many CGT militants—without the movement unleashed by Nuit debout this strike would not have existed with such determination.
A friend involved in the actions remarked, “What I find amazing in the present movement—and this was not the case for the one against pension reform—is that we really don’t see how this could end well.” Indeed, the state of the political system and the trade union system, the current crisis of representation, the imperatives of the economic crisis, world violence—everything creates a need to find a new way to look clearly at the period we live in. This is a transitional period where nothing positive will come out of reasonable possibilities. From now on, realism lies in thinking about the impossible.
What matters for our future is to figure out what will be the consequences of the apparent radicalization of important sections of the union rank and file and of non-unionized workers allied today with angry young people. How will this evolution express a new desire on the part of workers to struggle against the system? In what measure will this desire be able to go beyond the calculations of union leaders, to participate in the construction of new power relations between exploited and exploiters, and to grow a few of the seeds sewn by the Nuit debout movement? In France, the social landscape is changing and a bright spring is finally undoing the grayness of daily resignation. As a graffito says: Liberté illusoire, égalité dérisoire, fraternité aléatoire (Illusory liberty, derisory equality, arbitrary fraternity). Now people understand this. It is time to think and move on.
Further notes on an unfinished situation
Ever since the labor unions entered into the diverse and many-sided movement against the Labor Law, they have gradually been locked into two kinds of logic: one inevitably leading to negotiation and the other to street protests of a more political character. At the same time, occupation of the squares has become less important, even if the squares continue to serve as places for meetings and discussions after the demonstrations. The heads of the union bureaucracies know that they must take into account the radicalization of their rank and file; they realize that their bases are more rebellious and less controllable than before. Proof of this is in the actions around distributing electricity at reduced prices for millions of people in the Paris region, sabotage along transportation routes to support strikes, direct actions against well-selected enemy targets, like the destruction of the Socialist Party’s offices, occupations of the offices of employers and of union collaborators, of factories, and even of the private residences of capitalists celebrated in the media. The union apparatuses know that it will take time for the revolt to wear itself out, and that it must use this time to negotiate behind the scenes, to regain power. This is about the survival of the unions and of the ruling class. Despite the limited intelligence the government shows today in the defense of its general interest, it knows that these union apparatuses remain indispensible to regulating social peace.
At the same time, the state reinforces street repression in order to isolate the majority of unionists from combative and rebellious activists. It is important to underscore that over the course of this movement, the means of police repression have increased substantially in the streets, in the occupations, and even before protests begin. On their side, French unions have a long experience with repetitive mass demonstrations, which they always use as a tactic to exhaust movements and the enthusiasm of its militants, and to move them to surroundings where they are more easily contained. This time, it seems the tactic is achieving these results with greater difficulty, which is further proof of a new militancy. However, an old rule seems to be confirmed: the more the unions concentrate on demonstrations, the more the strikes lose their force. The state power is not mistaken when it says, “In the end, there has been no effect on social life.”
Nevertheless, there will be consequences, particularly political ones, if the social discontent expressed in this long rebellion is ignored. As a graffito proclaims: “La gauche est morte, pas nous!” (“The Left is dead, not us!”) Among the increasingly important protests to emerge are those that go beyond the normal manner of protesting, that come in unexpected ways from outside the normal channels pre-negotiated between police and unions, and which try to disrupt the city’s normal commercial life. These are the demonstrations on the sidelines of the “official protest,” the ones the police repress with provocations aiming to draw their participants into criminalizable actions.
Any social movement that doesn’t manage to build something new is doomed to disappear, crushed by those who represent a system whose nature is to destroy lives and values in the name of progress and profits. The persistence of this struggle, its assertion of the values of autonomy in a society marked by constant repression and fears of terrorism is, in itself, already a victory. From this perspective, we can see that the movement in France has succeeded in building something important: a feeling of solidarity, of collectivity—temporary to be sure—in the most rebellious margins of society, where union and non-union workers, precarious and unemployed workers, young people, and students meet. But within the limited framework of demonstrations their protests are fated to remain weak and ineffective. At any given time, we can understand that fatigue and enervation can take over. This is not a sign of defeat, only of the need to take a breath and regain strength in order to return to the attack sooner or later. In a future impossible to know today, different groups of people like these, radicalized by the same rejection of the current situation and by a determined will to confront the capitalist system, will reappear, hopefully in circumstances under which they can become a force to subvert the capitalist system.
- “Political” not in the sense of a movement to demand or defend a specific advantage for a particular sector of the working class, but in the sense of a movement fighting to preserve the living conditions of all working people; in this case, by defending the old labor law, seen as the last protection of workers’ rights in a period when precarity is becoming the new normal.
- See “Fighting for the Forest,” “Field Notes,” the Brooklyn Rail, December 2014.
Charles Reeve lives and writes in Paris.