What is the real nature of the Nuit Debout movement?

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What is the real nature of the Nuit Debout movement?

Gatherings every evening of several thousand people, especially at the Place de la République in Paris: the Nuit Debout movement has been in the headlines since 31 March. These are meetings of people from different horizons – high school pupils and university students, workers and the precariously employed, unemployed and pensioners, all sharing a desire to get together, to discuss, to close ranks against the adversities of this system. The sincerity of many of the participants is undeniable; they are indignant about all kinds of injustice and at root they aspire to a different world, a more human world founded on solidarity. However, Nuit Debout is not developing their fight or their consciousness. On the contrary, this movement is leading them into a dead end and strengthening the most conformist outlooks. Worse than that, Nuit Debout is a vehicle for the most nauseating ideas, like the personalisation of the evils of society, blaming them on a few representatives like bankers and oligarchs. In this way Nuit Debout is not only misleading all those who are taking part for honest reasons, but is already a blow by the bourgeoisie against the consciousness of the whole working class.

Socialist government and unions, hand in hand against the working class

The new Labour law (known as the “El Khomri” law after the current Minister of Labour, Myriam el Khomri) in itself symbolises the bourgeois and anti-working class nature of the Socialist Party. This “reform” will further degrade living standards and increase divisions among the wage earners, putting them in competition with each other. This whole project is an attempt to generalise the idea of separate negotiations over working hours, wage levels, lay-offs…

To facilitate the acceptance of this new law, the unions have played their usual role: they have cried scandal, demanded the modification or withdrawal of certain parts of the initial draft and have pretended to “put pressure” on the Socialist government by organising numerous days of action and demonstrations. These union parades, which consist of people tramping the streets and being bombarded with slogans like “The workers are in the street, El Khomri you are screwed”, or “Strike, strike, general strike!”, without being able to discuss or build anything together , serve only to demoralise people and spread feelings of powerlessness.

In 2010 and 2011, in response to the pensions reform, these same union days of action followed each other for months, sometimes mobilising several million people, but in the end allowing the attack to go through and, worse still, creating a kind of moral exhaustion which still weighs heavily on the whole working class. There is however a notable difference with regard to the movements of 2010 and 2011: the Nuit Debout phenomenon has benefited from a media and political coverage which is much wider, and presented much more sympathetically, than is usual for something which claims to be a social movement contesting the present state of affairs.

Nuit Debout, born from a plebiscite…by the bourgeoisie

Nuit Debout, the camp of the possible[1], or “Nuit Debout, bringing the imaginary citizen back to life” as the journal Libération put it. It also wrote that “It’s of little importance how it turns out politically…what counts is that on the public squares and elsewhere, we are groping towards a more dignified daily politics[2]. This support can also be seen at the international level. Numerous branches of the media around the world have given publicity to the general assemblies of Nuit Debout which, according to them, is reinventing politics and the world. Certain political figures on the left and far left, many of whom have gone along to the assemblies, have also waxed lyrical. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the co-founder of the Parti de Gauche, rejoiced over this gathering, as has the national secretary of the French Communist Party, Pierre Laurent. For Julien Bayou (EELV – the French green party), Nuit Debout  “is an exercise of radical democracy in real time”. Even Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the primaries candidate of the right, says she heard “interesting” slogans on the square, such as “we are not just electors, we are also citizens”. The president of the Republic himself, François Hollande, also gave his little salute: “I find it legitimate that the youth wants to have its say about the world as it is today, even about politics as it is today…I am not going to complain that part of the youth wants to invent the world of tomorrow”. The same ring tone at the international level: for Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece, “these movements are magnificent sparks in the midst of a dark sky”.

Reformism and democratism, the two ideological pillars of Nuit Debout

What is the significance of these eulogies by major international media and politicians? The answer is in the two founding documents of the movement. The leaflet distributed by the Convergence des Luttes collective on 31 March in Paris, and which launched the first gathering at the Place de la République[3] puts it like this: “Our governments are trapped in the obsession of perpetuating a system at the end of its tether at the price of ‘reforms’ which are more and more retrograde and conform to the logic of neo-liberalism which has been at work for 30 years: all power to the stockholders and the bosses, to the privileged few who appropriate the collective wealth. This system has been imposed on us by government after government, at the cost of numerous ways of denying democracy”. The manifesto has the same tone: “humanity must be at the heart of the concerns of our leaders”[4].

The orientation is very clear: it’s a matter of organising a movement to “put pressure” on the “leaders” and the state institutions in order to promote a more democratic and humane capitalism. This is the kind of politics that has marked the whole life of Nuit Debout. It’s enough to look at the actions coming out of the assemblies and commissions: “an aperitif with Valls” (a few hundred demonstrators went to have an aperitif at the home of the prime minister on 9 April); demonstrations at the Élysée on 14 April, following a TV programme in which François Hollande took part; occupation of the banking agency BNP Paribas in Toulouse; picnic at a hypermarket in Grenoble; disturbance of the regional council meeting in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and the municipal councils of Clermont-Ferrand and Poitiers; establishment of a ZAD (Zone to be Defended)at Montpelier; occupation of a MacDonald’s in Toulouse; tags on the windows of banks; depositing rubbish in front the doors of certain Parisian town halls, etc.

The most popular proposals at the Paris general assemblies are also revealing about this political orientation of looking for a few superficial or falsely radical alterations to the capitalist system: demonstrations for an “ecological democracy”, for a life-long wage, a minimum wage, cutting high incomes, full employment, organic agriculture, better treatment of minorities, democracy through drawing lots, more commitment by the state to education, especially in the deprived suburbs, transatlantic partnership in trade and investment etc.

Regarding the trade unions, Marx wrote in 1865: Instead of the conservative motto: A fair day's wage for a fair day's work! they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: ‘Abolition of the wages system! (Value, price and profit). It’s precisely this revolutionary logic that those who pull the strings behind Nuit Debout are deliberately rejecting, leading the young generations who are posing questions about this society onto a rotten terrain: reformism and the election box.

The most emblematic demand is without doubt the call for a new constitution establishing a “social republic”. Thus according to the economist Frédéric Lordon, one of the initiators of Nuit Debout: “the first act of re-appropriation is the re-writing of a constitution…what is the social republic? It’s taking seriously the democratic idea posed in 1789[5]

It’s all there in a nutshell. The central aim of those who launched Nuit Debout is to realise a “true democracy” promised by the French revolution of 1789. But what was revolutionary two and half centuries ago, i.e. installing the political power of the bourgeoisie in France, overcoming feudalism by the development of capitalism, building a nation…all this today has become irredeemably reactionary. This system of exploitation is decadent. It’s not a question of making it better, because that has become impossible, but of going beyond it, of overthrowing it through an international proletarian revolution. But here the illusion is being sewn that the state is a neutral agent on which we have to put pressure, or even protect from the shareholders, the corrupt politicians, the greedy bankers, the oligarchs…when in reality, the state is the highest representative of the ruling class and the worst enemy of the exploited.

Above all, we should not underestimate the danger of fixating on the bankers, the shareholders, the corrupt politicians. This method of accusing this or that action or person instead of the system of exploitation as a whole has no other meaning than the preservation of capitalist social relations. It replaces the class struggle, the struggle against capitalism and for another world, by hatred directed against individuals who only have to be removed from power for all the evils of society to disappear as if by magic[6].

Nuit Debout, the anti-Indignados

Nuit Debout claims to be taking up the torch of the movements of 2006 and 2011. But in reality, it is making a travesty of their memory by completely deforming what was the strength of the movement against the CPE and the Indignados, framing all discussion in the optic of citizenship and republican values, and diverting reflection to the problem of making capitalism more human and democratic.

In 2006 in France, the students debated in real sovereign general assemblies which liberated speech. They also had the concern to widen the movement to the employed, to the retired[7], to the unemployed, in the first place by opening their general assemblies to them, by putting forward demands which went beyond the simple framework of the CPE[8], leaving to one side all specifically student demands. Five years later, in 2011, we saw with the Indignados movement in Spain and Occupy in the US and Israel expressions of the same vital need to get together and discuss the evils of this capitalist system founded on exploitation, exclusion and suffering. This time, the assemblies didn’t take place in lecture halls and theatres but in the streets and squares[9].

In the Indignados movement, although the context was different, we saw the same strings being pulled as in the Nuit Debout movement. The ‘alternative worldists’ of DRY (Real Democracy Now) hid behind the mask of ‘apoliticism’ in order to sabotage any real discussion. Then too they tried to channel energies into the ‘life of the commissions’ to the detriment of the debates in the general assemblies and into making the ‘right choice’ in elections (Podemos was the culmination of this approach). But at that time the social movement was rather more profound. Participants often had the strength to take the struggle into their own hands, and real general assemblies, animated by serious debate and reflection about society, were held in parallel with those of DRY, although this was totally blacked out by the media. This is what we wrote at the time:

“On Sunday 22nd, election day, instead of another attempt to end the assemblies, DRY proclaimed that “we’ve achieved our goals” and that the movement must be ended. The response was unanimous: “We are not here for the elections”. On Monday 23rd and Tuesday 24th, both in the number of participants and in the richness of the debates, the assemblies reached their peak. Interventions, slogans, placards proliferated demonstrating a deep reflection: “Where is the Left? It’s behind the Right”, “The polls cannot hold back our dreams”, “600 euros per month, that’s some violence”, “If you don’t let us dream, we will prevent you from sleeping!, “No work, no home, no fear”, “They deceived our grandparents, they deceived our children, they will not deceive our grandchildren”. They also show an awareness of the perspectives: “We are the future, capitalism is the past”, “All power to the assemblies”, “There is no evolution without revolution”, “The future starts now”, “Do you still believe this is a utopia?”…. However, it was the demonstration in Madrid in particular that provided a new focus coming from June 19th on perspectives for the future. It was convened by an organisation coming from the working class and its most active minorities. The theme of this gathering was “March and unite against the crisis and against capital.” It declared: “No to wage cuts and pension cuts; against unemployment: workers' struggles; no to price rises, increase our wages, increase the taxes on those who earn the most, protect our public services, no to privatisation of health and education ... Long live working class unity.”[10]

We didn’t share all the demands raised by the Indignados. Weaknesses, illusions in bourgeois democracy were also very present. But the movement was animated by a proletarian dynamic and included a deep criticism of the system, of the state, of elections. It began a fight against the organisations of the left and extreme left who were deploying all their political forces to limit reflection and drag it back into the limits of what is acceptable for capitalism.

The present weakness of our class has meant that it has not been possible for this kind of proletarian critique to emerge out of Nuit Debout or for the desire to come together and discuss, which certainly does animate a section of those taking part, to bear fruit. The bourgeoisie has drawn lessons from the previous movements, It has prepared the ground very well and is manoeuvring intelligently, taking advantage of the present weaknesses of the proletariat. Today, it’s Attac, the New Anti-Capitalist Party, the Left Front and all the adepts of reformism and of a so-called “real democracy now” who remain in control of Nuit Debout and who are taking advantage of the proletariat’s disarray, its lack of perspective, its difficulty in recognising itself as a class. These groups are occupying the social terrain and in doing so are acting as the most effective support for capitalism.

The real nature of Nuit Debout

We have to be clear: there was nothing spontaneous about Nuit Debout. It’s something which has been prepared and organised over a long period by the radical defenders of capitalism. Behind this “spontaneous” and “apolitical” movement lurk the professionals, the groups of the left and extreme left who use “apoliticism” as a means of control. The appeal of 31 March already had this professional dimension:

“In the programme: animations, relaxation, concerts, information sharing, a Permanent Citizens’ Assembly and all kinds of surprises”. Nuit Debout had its origins in a public meeting organised at the Paris Bourse du Travail on 23 February 2016. This meeting, baptised “make them afraid” was motivated by the enthusiastic reactions to the film by François Ruffin, Merci Patron!. The decision was taken to occupy the Place de la République at the end of the demonstration of 31 March.

“The ‘pilot’ collective of 15 people met: Johanna Silva from the journal Fakir, Loic Canitrot , from the company Joilie Mome, Leila Chaibi from the Black Thursday Collective and a member of the Left Party, a trade unionist from Air France also a member of the Left Party, a member of the Les Engraineurs association and a student from Sciences Po, the economist Thomas Couttrot and Nicolas Galepides of Sud-PTT….The association Droit au Logement offered legal and practical aid, the ‘alternative worldist’ Attac and the Solidaires union federation also joined the collective. It was the economist Frédéric Lordon who was approached by the initiative collective to open this first Paris night on 31 March. His idea: “for the social republic” would be echoed in the workshops formed to write a new Constitution in Paris and Lyon…”. These few lines from Wikipedia show how far the official political forces, trade unions, left associations etc contributed to setting up and taking charge of the Nuit Debout movement.

In particular, who is François Ruffin? Editor in chief of the leftist paper Fakir, he is close to the Left Front and the CGT. His aim is to “put pressure on the state and its representatives”, or, to use his own words, “make them afraid”. For a movement to succeed, according to him, you have to ensure that the “combat on the streets and the expression through the ballot box come together”, like in 1936 and “even in 1981”. This is an attempt to make us forget that 1936 prepared the mobilisation of the working class for the Second World War; as for 1981, this so-called “social movement” enabled the Socialist Party to come to power and carry out some of the most effectively anti-working class policies of the last few decades!. This is the real agenda of Nuit Debout: an enterprise aimed at getting those participating in good faith and full of hope that the real aim of a radical struggle is to head back to the ballot box, to instil the illusion that capitalist society can be made more human if you vote for the right parties, i.e. the Socialist party or the extreme left[11].

This initiative by the left of the SP and the extreme left has arrived at a highly opportune moment for the bourgeoisie: in a year of presidential elections, when the SP is very widely discredited. This is what is at stake in the short and medium term – the capacity of the bourgeoisie to create a new left that has some credibility for the working class, a “radical, alternative, democratic” left. We are seeing the same dynamic in a number of other countries, with Podemos in Spain and Sanders in the USA.

It’s not at all certain that this part of the manoeuvre, its electoral dimension, will be a success for the bourgeoisie, i.e. that it will lead to a mobilisation for the elections, because the working class is very deeply disgusted by all the political parties. At the same time, the attempts of François Ruffin to pull the participants of Nuit Debout towards the trade unions[12], in particular the CGT, has up till now been a failure, On the other hand, the ideology transmitted by this movement, the idea of citizenship, which serves to further dilute the proletariat’s class identity, and the tendency towards personalisation instead of the combat against the capitalist system, is a particularly dangerous and effective poison for the future.

Nuit Debout, even more than being the product of a new manoeuvre by the left and extreme left, is the symbol of the real difficulties of the workers to recognise themselves as a class, as a social force which bears the future for humanity as a whole. And these difficulties are not just temporary: they are part of a deep historical process going on in society. The seeds planted by movements like the struggle against the CPE or the Indignados, which were expressions of the real need of the proletariat to develop its struggle, are today dormant in a frozen soil. As for older movements, like the ones which led to the Paris Commune in 1871 or the October revolution in 1917, they are being buried and forgotten under heaps of lies.

But when the social atmosphere heats up, under the blows of the crisis and the inevitable aggravation of attacks against our living conditions, then some flowers can begin to bloom. This confidence in the future is based on an awareness that the proletariat is a historic class which carries within itself  another world, free from relations of exploitation, which is necessary and possible for humanity.

Germain, 15.5.16

[6] This denunciation of the oligarchy is also very close to the fixation on the Establishment by Donald Trump in the USA. While the appearances are different, the same ideological basis is there, that of personalisation.

[7] One of the most successful banners read “View croûtons, jeunes lardons, la meme salade”, which we could translate (with a slight change of recipe) to “old cucumbers, young tomatoes, it’s the same salad”

[8] On the CPE: see ‘Theses on the spring 2006 students’ movement in France’, https://en.internationalism.org/ir/125_france_students

[10]From our article ‘Protests in Spain, a movement that heralds the future’,  https://en.internationalism.org/ir/146/editorial-protests-in-spain

[11] For a better understanding of the thinking of Ruffin and the origins of Nuit Debout, see our article on the French site on the film Merci Patron! https://fr.internationalism.org/revolution-internationale/201605/9374/merci-patron-denaturation-ce-qu-lutte-classe. See also:                          www.liberation.fr/france/2016/02/24/qui-est-francois-ruffin-le-realisate...


[12]I hope that we can have a very big 1st of May, that the demonstration ends at the République and that we hold a mass rally with the unions who oppose the Labour law”




Class struggle in France