Standing Night  : occupation of squares, convergence of struggles and the right to the city in France

Claudio PULGAR PINAUD, 2016

Collection Passerelle

This text was written in June 2016 and was first published on the INVI website.

«  What distinguishes social movements from other mobilizations is that they focus on another societal project much more than on a specific demand1 ".


Since 9 March 2016, France has been living under the pressure of one of the most important social movements of the last twenty years. This time, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the proposed reform of the labour code, the true institution of what remains of French social protection. The latter was built thanks to the struggles of workers since the 19th century, but especially since the major strikes of the Popular Front (1936), the programme of the National Council of Resistance after the Second World War and the student and worker revolts of May 68. The social pressure cooker has been under pressure for years. The current socialist government has only accelerated the process by carrying out its successive neoliberal reforms and austerity policy. The two attacks of 2015 slowed down this boiling, but failed to demobilize the people, who had already massively occupied the streets during the national mourning in January.

The violent crackdown on social and environmental movements at the time of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in December 2015, justified by the state of emergency, did not discourage activists either.

The parliamentary debate on the draft law on forfeiture of nationality (proposed by the extreme right and adopted by the socialists, it was then rejected by the Senate), as well as the extension of the state of emergency after the European football cup in July, the constant expulsions of migrants, the rise in unemployment, the scandals of political and financial corruption, the cases of tax evasion that came to light, all fuelled the general discontent, already nourished by previous struggles.

The convergence of struggles and the new social context

The citizen’s appeal, which led to the great day of strike and demonstration on 9 March, was the highlight of the 2016 round of protests. It was not an appeal by the formal trade union structures, despite their still significant weight in France. This unprecedented fact shows that something new was in incubation since the beginning of this movement. At the end of February, when the government announced its reform of the labour code, everything coincided to generate the conditions necessary for a great social movement.

A striking fact is the documentary « Thank you Patron », a satirical criticism of the excessive ambition of the great French fortunes, with the relocation of factories and the repercussions of unemployment on people’s lives as a backdrop. The film, which was not promoted in the media, was an unprecedented and massive success in cinemas. This motivated a group of activists, including the director of the documentary, and trade unionists to organize meetings under the theme «  Their scare ". It was during these meetings that the idea of occupying a public space emerged, especially places such as we have been able to see them since 2011. This heterogeneous group called itself «  convergence of struggles ".

The date chosen was March 31, the day of the general strike announced by the vast majority of unions and student organizations. The signing of a virtual petition against the reform by more than a million people was another unprecedented event.

The occupation of the Place de la République

The March 31 demonstration, with more than a million participants in the streets despite heavy rain, demonstrated the strength of the social movement and its two historical components, the workers, whether unionized or not, and the student and high school movement. A third front, a novelty in the history of French social movements, burst into the streets that evening : the occupation of the squares.

The big difference with other square occupations around the world is that, from the first day, the Nuit Debout was not allowed by the forces of law and order to occupy the square permanently. In the first week, every night at 5 a.m., the police expelled people from the square. The movement adapted and managed to set up a new camp every day from noon onwards, with demountable structures, foreseeing that every night everything had to be taken away again. It became common practice for the police to start throwing tear gas grenades and bludgeoning the occupants from midnight onwards.

This daily occupation made sense of the place, giving political content to a public space that had just been reshaped some time ago. With the creation of a large esplanade and the elimination of much of the traffic, the conditions for its occupation and re-appropriation were facilitated. The secret desire of every town planner to build an «  agora  » was thus realized by the thousands of inhabitants who every evening met to discuss in specific commissions or in general assemblies, sometimes gathering several thousand people. On the square, it is a kind of village that is organically built, a village where, from the first evening, one could find an infirmary, a free canteen or a media centre in charge of communication on social networks, an important component of the movement. As the days went by, several other permanent programs were established, such as a library, a garden, a children’s area, poster-making workshops, exhibitions, etc. In addition, the three official communication media of the square were consolidated: a newspaper, a radio and a television channel, which transmitted daily live from the square on the internet. With all this infrastructure, a counter-hegemonic autonomy was built in reality, an autonomy that would have been difficult to achieve without the occupation of the square.

The festive component was present from the first day, when a big concert was given on a truck. On the square, there was a constant succession of artistic interventions, theatre, film screenings, a symphony orchestra… Daily, assemblies and political discussions took place on the east side of the square, while on the west side, festive activities developed, with participants moving from one side to the other. Some historians and anthropologists point out that revolt or revolution movements always had an important festive element. The carnival, for example, was often a time of uprisings and revolts, which explains why it was recuperated and brought under control.

Night standing and the right to the city

Seat occupancy is a process, not an outcome or goal in itself. Having a high turnover of participants and using the assembly as a space for discussion and decision making has transformed Nuit Debout into a school of radical and horizontal democracy. Many participants were already activists, but many others became politicized in the occupation process. The « convergence of struggles  » was at work in more than 80 commissions working in the square, giving the movement a systemic character, which goes far beyond challenging the reform of the labour code by constructing a certain «  intersectionality ", in the sociological sense of the intersection of forms of domination/contestation. The most visible struggles are feminist struggles, the struggle for the right to housing, the struggle against colonization, ecological struggles, with a constant but not predominant participation of union and student struggles.

The right to the city, in the sense defined by Lefebvre, of reappropriation and predominance of use value, takes shape in the occupation of squares, functioning at the same time as a challenge to the mercantilised and privatised city. Nuit Debout functions as a laboratory of communal production, to use the language of the situationists, from the production of space through doing and praxis. It is not only space that is reappropriated through occupation, but also time, with night becoming a recuperated time for self-organization, for democracy and debate. The occupation of the place builds a space-time of experimentation, with the constitution of another city, legitimizing in fact what the public authorities call illegal. The square has been renamed «  Place de la Commune ". (for the Paris Commune of 1871) : this decision was taken in the general assembly on March 32 (the days were now counted from the date of occupation of the square on March 31) and was not insignificant. The Paris Commune is known as a revolutionary moment of self-management of the city by the people of Paris in arms, a moment which is, until now, considered by many as the only historical moment in the attempt to achieve a self-managed socialism on the scale of an entire city.

The occupation of the square as resistance and disobedience contrasts with other processes that have developed in recent years in France and that can serve as a point of origin or comparison. ZADs (zones to be defended), for example, are occupations of territories by activists and inhabitants against large, unnecessary and imposed projects (such as the airport project at Notre Dame des Landes on a rainforest site). Migrant or Roma camps - the most emblematic of these, but not the only one, being the Calais Jungle - are another example. These are spaces where «  territorial autonomies  » are built, which challenge the current society and city and manufacture alternatives here and now. The occupation of the square is also an opposition to the privatization of public spaces, which is so commonplace and natural with the bar terraces and private brand marketing events authorized by the public authorities. It is also a space for encounters and interaction between inhabitants, who normally ignore each other or do not even have the opportunity to meet: young people in precarious situations, migrants, the working poor, trade unionists, people living on the streets, among others. Occupation functions as a space for building trust and empathy, which is difficult to find in today’s city of flows and consumption.

The composition of the participants of Nuit Debout

The mass media and the political class constantly attacked the participants of Nuit Debout, arguing that they were only «  young white graduates of the petty bourgeoisie (the bobos) or hippies playing drums », but more than 30 sociologists have evaluated the reality of the participants of Nuit Debout2  in the field: more than half are over 33 years old and 20% are over 50 years old. Two thirds are men. Forty percent of the participants come from the suburbs, and Parisians come mainly from the northeastern neighborhoods, the most popular areas of the capital. Sixty per cent are graduates (the national average is 25 per cent) and 24 per cent are blue-collar or white-collar workers, more than double the Parisian average. The survey and its analysis show that the diversity of participants is great, but that the low participation of young people from the suburbs is a revealing lack of the fractures in French society.

From the occupation of the centre to the occupation of the neighbourhoods

The movement to occupy the squares began in Paris and twenty other cities at the same time. More than 200 occupied squares throughout France have been counted so far. More than three weeks after the occupation of the Place de la République in Paris, neighborhood assemblies began to be organized in parallel, assemblies that appear to be the possible future of the movement. Moving the assemblies to the squares of other communes and neighbourhoods was an unpremeditated effect of Nuit Debout. People who did not want or could not go towards this «  centrality ", were thus able to participate. It also made it possible to discuss more local themes and actions that went beyond the struggle « against the labour law and its world ». Thanks to these meeting spaces, neighbours who had never met before were able to exchange and weave links between neighbourhoods, as an example between the assemblies of the 19th and 20th arrondissements of Paris (Place des Fêtes, Ménilmontant and Belleville). The struggles were also able to converge, at different scales : from the labour law at the national level, to the installation of new supermarkets in the neighbourhoods for example, with a systemic analysis of these problems. What happened in France in the spring of 2016 is fundamental for what will happen in Europe and in the world in relation to the advances or retreat of neoliberalism. It is not for nothing that France has always been a political laboratory of revolutions and counter-revolutions throughout history. Until now, France was the only country in Western Europe to resist the implementation of structural neoliberal policies. Although the neo-liberal project has been widely implanted in France since the 1980s, it has so far not been able to break the complex fabric of French social security, in contrast to what has happened in Germany or England. One can only be astonished again and again that the socialist or labour governments of these countries are responsible for the neo-liberal reforms in these countries, as Jean-Pierre Garnier asserts by referring to the socialists as part of the «  second right ". This new era of resistance that opens in the France of 2016 gives an air of youthfulness to the global resistance against neoliberalism. The occupation of the city and the squares - an innovative fact - shows once again the role of the right to the city in the anti-capitalist struggles.

In May and June 2016, the social movement experienced particularly turbulent times. The movement carried out a series of actions to block economic flows, in which the trade unions played a central role, thus diminishing the «  spontaneous  side of the occupation of the squares of Nuit debout. During these months, refineries were almost totally blocked and about half of the petrol stations were thus deprived of petrol. The electricity and nuclear power plant unions joined the strike movement to block the economy. Many ports were blocked, trade unions in all transport sectors also went on strike (trucks, buses, trains, subways) as well as garbage collectors, leaving Paris under the rubbish bins for more than a month. These convergences of the different sectors demanded the withdrawal of the labour law. From the beginning of the movement in March until July, more than a dozen days of large-scale national demonstrations took place. Especially in the first few months, students and high school students who blocked hundreds of high schools and universities joined the strike movement and the demonstrations, which gave the movement strength from the beginning, a strength that was later developed by the occupation of the squares and then by the role played by the trade unions and their strikes.

However, despite the strength of the movement and its various fronts of action, the Socialist Government remained intransigent, to the point of ignoring parliamentary debate - because there was no majority - and eventually passed the bill using Article 49-3 of the Constitution. During this time, the social movement celebrated its 100 days and although it is less intense (everything seems to be working against it : a violent repression for four months, the media castigating it, the arrival of the summer holidays, the European Football Cup, the Tour de France etc.), it has introduced new forms of organisation and struggles. The France of June is not the France of March. We will have to wait a few years to see the long-term effects of this movement.