• Who Are In the Streets? Reflections on Nuit Debout in Paris

  • Yann Le Lann | 08 Mar 17 | Posted under: France , Social Movements and Trade Unions
  • After the 31 March demonstration against the new proposed labour legislation (the ‘loi travail’), demonstrators decided not to go home; they re- assembled at Place de la République to keep vigil and debate the society they wanted to build, and the Nuit Debout movement was born. It is difficult to quantify its size in terms of number of participants, but we can say without hesitation that this occupation of Place de la République is eliciting deep support and stimulating numerous debates at the centre of French society. Nuit Debout is in many respects a new form of mobilisation that is shaking up political codes. Its image in society is very positive. Even if the polls have fluctuated, up to 60% of the French population have said they support it, and 47% of young people say they are ready to participate. However, the innovative nature of this new mode of activity, made up of activists coming from very different outlooks, has made it particularly difficult to identify the participants.

    For the media universe it is as if the value of this action depended directly on the social positions of the people participating in the occupation of the square – without any media concerned to do anything resembling a serious investigation of the subject. A large section of journalists and of the political class have been content to issue hasty judgements.

    Nuit Debout’s opponents have invested heavily in the idea that this is a ‘petit bourgeois’ or ‘bobo’ movement to suggest disconnection from the economic and social reality of the working classes. The more right-wing the observers are the more the movement is seen as a utopian phenomenon carried by a handful of privileged people.

    Those with a positive opinion of the movement have in a sense actually absorbed this ‘labelling’. They see it as a youthful movement with cultural capital. It is, moreover, a self-analysis that is close to how the participants see themselves. For example, one of the initiators, François Ruffin, has put forward the idea that Nuit Debout is a movement of the ‘intellectual petite bourgeoisie’.

    This self-positioning as part of the superior intellectual classes led to many speeches within the general assemblies addressing the limit of Nuit Debout and the difficulty of being representative of the most ‘dominated’ populations. The supposed absence of people from the banlieue, of the precarious, or of workers are themes that have been present in almost all the discussions. For some Nuit Deboutists, this presumed absence made the movement’s claim to represent an emancipatory logic illegitimate.

    Identifying who did and did not participate has thus been at the heart of a central polemic directly related to the capacity of this movement to be the bearer of popular aspirations. We would like to confront these different perspectives with the conclusions of the only quantitative study available on the protagonists of Nuit Debout.1 Ever since the beginning of the movement the group of citizen researchers responsible for this study has tried to construct a census of the social characteristics of the Place de la République occupiers. This study contains many fascinating points, only some of which we can address here. We will concentrate on the results that sharply clash with the perceptions of observers and which the participants have of themselves. And we will show that the common imagery does not tally with the objectively observable social characteristics of the people in the square. We will then try to assess the different theories on the causes of the mobilisation in relation to the data provided by this study.

    The data

    From the study of Nuit Debout, for example, we learn that if its makeup is essentially male (about two-thirds), it is also not particularly made up of young people. During the time slot of 6:00 pm to 6:30 pm, for example, half of the nuit-deboutists are over 33 years old. In total, one in five participants is even older than 50. Contrary to common belief Nuit Debout is therefore not uniquely a ‘youth phenomenon’.

    Nor is it strictly a ‘Parisian’ phenomenon. Although a majority of the participants do in fact come from Paris (more accurately from its less well-off eastern sections), 37 per cent of participants live in the banlieue. One in six participants does not live in the Paris area at all.

    Another interesting element in understanding this phenomenon is the social profile of the nuit-deboutists. The majority of the participants have a higher long-cycle academic degree (61%), which is true of only one-quarter of the French population. But it is much more interesting to note that not only is the unemployment rate 20% among the participants, that is, double the national rate, but also that 16% of the activists are workers – a percentage three times greater than that of the population of Paris and about equal to that of the Île-de-France as a whole.

    Thus Nuit Debout, far from being a movement of preparatory school or university students seeking thrills, is above all a movement of skilled workers, graduates, and precarious workers.

    Another major criticism that could be levelled at Nuit Debout – one alluded to above – is that it is a collection of ‘apolitical people’. Here again, it is easy to take apart this idea. More than a third of the people involved have taken part in a demonstration against the El Khomri labour law bill. The proportion of individuals interviewed who declared they were already members of a political party is remarkable even in the context of activist disaffection – 17%. And 22% have paid dues to a union. Citizen activism and association and charity involvements are likewise well represented amongst them – more than half of them have been involved in one or more of these activities (refugee aid, soup runs, parent-student associations, neighbourhood associations, environmental defence organisations, tutoring, festivals, community cafés, etc.).

    Moreover, this mobilisation is not at all opposed to the activism of traditional organisations. Conversely, parties and unions have continued to mobilise against the loi travail and bridges have been built on several occasions – with Philippe Martinez coming to speak to the general assembly of Nuit Debout, an evening organised at the Labour Exchange (which at the time was located right next to Place de la République), or with the ‘political’ world when Yannis Varoufakis came to the general assembly to offer his support.

    Theories of the movement’s rationale

    The inquiry has thus produced very rich data on the social qualities of the participants. It helps in qualifying the discussions within the movement that have tried to indicate its social limitations. It also shows that the occupation was not a matter of a bourgeois class looking for a utopia. Taking this type of study seriously also invites us to rethink the causes and the goal of the struggle that has been taken up. Besides the immediate pleasure in participating in such a large collective action, the protagonists brought together seem to have points in common that the right, the benevolent critics, and even at times the movement itself have not analysed.

    The hypothesis of a bourgeois movement and of generational conflict

    Directly called into question by this study, the hypothesis of a heavily bourgeois character of Nuit Debout does not stand the test of statistics. The arrondissements of central Paris (the most posh areas) are under- represented in the movement. And there is no presence of the employers or of a discourse favourable to them. Furthermore, the ideological anchorage of the movement has repeatedly made clear its ‘anti-capitalism’. On the other hand, what makes it difficult to classify Nuit Debout is the high proportion of graduates among its participants. This social characteristic has left open the possibility of analysing the movement as the action of the children of middle-level managers who are downwardly mobile. A part of the commentators tend to make Nuit Debout into a movement of youth engaged in combating the degradation of their social condition in relation to that of their parents. In particular, the occupation would then be the sign of a revolt of the ‘declassed’ or of reduced possibilities of upward mobility. In this vein the sociologist Bruno Maresca insists that

    It is no longer the popular or working classes who are going into the streets to win their rights and salary raises but the middle classes themselves, which have previously benefitted from access to education and employment. This sudden awakening of the ‘soft underbelly’ of society is at odds with the fear of declassing that is worrying it ever since the spreading of inequalities within the capitalist economies at the beginning of the 2000s.

    In concentrating on these two interdependent questions, the protest against the financialisation of the economy and against governments that bolster the interests of the big corporations, on the one hand, and, on the other, a political class increasingly closed in on itself, the middle classes are trying to put a halt to a development that is making them pass from the dynamic of upward mobility from generation to generation to a spiral of declassing, a phenomenon that has been analysed in France for ten years now.2

    The fragilisation of the social conditions of children born of parents with higher-education degrees is a social reality in France as in other countries. But two important elements appear to limit the interpretative power of this hypothesis. On the one hand, Nuit Debout is, strictly speaking, neither a generational movement nor a youth movement. From the beginning, the movement has had structures to accommodate children and play facilities for them so that their parents could occupy the square. The best represented class is that of people in their thirties occupying high positions. If some have experienced declassing these are nevertheless a minority. There is therefore scant possibility that the driving force of the movement can be found in the loss of a position amongst higher paid salaried workers.

    The hypothesis of the struggle against neoliberalism’s work conventions

    To this day the most convincing explanatory theory of the movement seems to be the one connected to the sequence of events initiated by the loi travail. The political debate in France in 2016 opened around the big offensive by Medef (the French employers’ association) and the Hollande government to liberalise the labour market by weakening sector-wide collective bargaining and controls on firing. This draft law provoked a major mobilisation with very broad and lasting support from February to June.

    From this angle, Nuit Debout can in part be seen as a prolongation of the conflict over the loi travail, which seized the opportunity of the social movement to extend mobilisation to sectors not directly touched by the draft law but which are structurally hit by neoliberalism. Two sectors had massive presence in the mobilisation: public services, which Bourdieu dubbed ‘the left hand of the state’ (education and research, healthcare, and social work), and entertainment workers – artists and actors. These activity areas were not directly affected by or mainly concerned with a loi travail centred on the reform of the regulations protecting workers from unjust firing or on collective bargaining in the private sector. Nevertheless, these workers were at the centre of the mobilisation because they recognised an occasion to take action to defend a vision – the valuation of labour representing an alternative to the ideas transmitted by the majority of France’s political class for 40 years: notably ‘activation’, that is, the raising of the pensionable age with diminished pensions for those not looking for work; wage stringency; and flexibility. Discussions have been very rich and diverse in the general assemblies, but the question of the Workers Statute remained central in this period. This was not simply a matter of external context but a central concern shared by the demonstrators and occupiers. Finally, the history of Nuit Debout is perhaps above all the history of a combination of several sectors in struggle. From the arrival of the precarious entertainment workers in the square to the multiplication of occupations of hospitals conducted on the initiative of healthcare personnel, up to the creation of ‘Taxi Debout’ to resist UBER, each factor in the development of the occupation was marked by discussions around projects of working-class emancipation.

    The question of the valuation of labour was thus at the centre of the occupation dynamic, and it reframed the question of convergence. The difficulty of extending Nuit Debout beyond itself is one recognised by the participants in, and commentators on, the movement.

    During an interview in l’Express, the sociologist Olivier Galand accurately observed that ‘the slogan of Nuit Debout, the convergence of struggles, remains theoretical for now’.3 Even if this observation needs to be modified in relation to the data presented by the above-cited study showing the participation of the immediate banlieue in the occupation, it is clear that the popularisation of the struggle has been in part limited. However, the question of convergence has often been posed as arising from problems of the forms of mobilisation (interminable general assemblies, debates on too theoretical a level, etc.). At a deeper level perhaps the question has to do with the image of work projected by Nuit Debout. The defence of public- sector workers or of cultural workers is probably different from the kind of defence required for other fringes of wage labour. The capacity to bring together the entirety of wage labour depends in part on the construction of a project of labour reform capable of speaking to the supporters of the movement, who are very numerous among the popular classes but who remained at the edge of the square.


    1. The study was conducted by Stéphane Baciocchi (EHESS), Alexandra Bidet (CNRS), Pierre Blavier (EHESS), Manuel Boutet (Université de Nice), Lucie Champenois (ENS Cachan), Carole Gayet-Viaud (CNRS), and Erwan Le Méner (EHESS). The first results were published in Le Monde, 16 May 2016.

    2. Bruno Maresca, ‘Vers quel nouveau monde nous emmène Nuit Debout?’, Huffington Post, 20 April 2016.

    3. Olivier Galand, ‘De quelle jeunesse parlons-nous?’, L’Express, 19 April 2016.

Related articles