"Nuit Debout": Is The Left Being Reignited In France?

Photo: Olivier Ortelpa

By Theodore Abitbol

On the 31st of March, a seemingly ordinary demonstration took place in Paris. A new controversial labor law was being discussed, so protesters took to the streets to denounce what they perceived as a jab to workers’ rights. But after the procession walked the walk, people “spontaneously” decided to invade the Place de la République, and ended up spending the entire night talking, sitting, walking, and, mostly, standing.

The Nuit Debout was born.

As I heard from a staff member during the second night, a dozen or so activists had prepared the occupation two weeks in advance. They had been inspired by other square-occupation movements around the world. But the goals of the Nuit Debout movement remain far from clear: “take back politics”, “direct democracy”, “get together again”… The list goes on.

“These are indeed murky times for socialists (...) I see Nuit Debout as a natural consequence of this disappointment – an attempt to reignite the (far-)left.”


The underlying idea seems to be that classic political channels are either outdated or corrupt. A sense of urgency and demoralization has permeated the political landscape of France for some time now. This widespread feeling of uneasiness explains, by itself, a huge chunk of the electoral successes of the far right, leaving traditional parties such as the Socialist Party (PS) in dismay.

Replaying the ‘right turn’ of the former socialist President Mitterand, M. Hollande (PS) is sometimes deemed a rightist in regard to his social and economic policies. These are indeed murky times for socialists, who find it increasingly difficult to adhere to the political line of the Socialist Party. I see Nuit Debout as a natural consequence of this disappointment – an attempt to reignite the (far)-left.

Early reactions in the press ranged from slight and bemused interest to indifference. Now it is becoming more and more partisan, with former President Sarkozy calling the movement a “gathering of airheads” and the economist Frederic Lordon supporting the beginning of a new type of class warfare.

I went to the Place de la République a few times to check things out. I was there the other night, around 11pm. There were some food stands, a fanfare and a lot of beer bottles. The smell of weed permeated the air. At some point, some people lit up a fire. I heard some muffled and not-so-muffled discussions about whether it should be put out or not.

“You are giving them an excuse to storm the place!”

“If we can’t even make a fire, what’s this place good for?”

The fire was eventually put out and the music went on. Some reggae was now pouring out of the makeshift dormitories – some pallets laid out under a roughly assembled tent. I walked aimlessly for a bit, since it was way too late to attend to an Assemblée Générale (AG), while all around me the crowd kept talking.

An anarchist bookshop stand was still up and I started talking to the librarian, a fifty-something man with grey hair and round glasses. According to him, the AGs are disappointing: lots of talk, very little action. Another grey-haired man, who turned out to be an air-force pilot, butted in. He went on rambling about how we should befriend the police force in case things go sour.

A clamor rose up behind us, accompanied by a sudden movement in the crowd. Some punches were thrown, but soon everything went back to normal before anything dangerous could happen. Some heavily armed cops were lurking in the background. A cheerful guy broke free from the crowd and joined our conversation with a malicious grin.

“If history taught us one thing, it’s that revolts thrive on oppression. Maidan, Tahrir… Maybe we should provoke fate a little, eh? Maybe throw some cans?”

The atmosphere kept changing between that of a carefree student party, a public fair and a strange political meeting.

I wandered around the square some more with a vague feeling of agitation. The atmosphere kept changing between that of a carefree student party, a public fair and a strange political meeting. Most people at these gatherings aspire toward a more equal society – it is, after all, a left wing gathering. Words usually absent from the public debate went round and round: ‘capital’, ‘private property’, ‘structure of production’. A Marxist-leaning vocabulary permeated all these discussions.

It seems to me that every participant would really like this thing to take off, but nobody knows where to go or how to fly it. Lots of words being thrown around. Powerful words. Words like ‘revolution’. And yet boots keep patrolling the outskirts of the Place de la République. Boots that remind everyone of what’s what.

Theodore Abitbol is a European Affairs graduate living in Paris. His interests are primarily politics and literature.