France: Nocturnal protests ‘to change the world’ gather force

Riot police moved in on Monday to clear out Place de la Republique in Paris, which has become home to nocturnal protests as hundreds have gathered to air their many grievances as well as sing and drink beer. But how will it end ?

France: Nocturnal protests 'to change the world' gather force
Photo: AFP

It wasn't immediately clear if Monday morning's evacuation (see tweet below) of the famous square in Paris meant protesters would be forbidden from returning as they have done each evening for the last 11 nights.

What is clear though is that the “Nuit Debout” (which roughly translates as “Rise Up at Night”) movement appears to be growing in strength rather than dying out and the authorities in Paris are unlikely to risk barring them from their headquarters just yet.

Following the evacuation, which removed the wooden fences and structures built by protesters, the organizers of Nuit Debout immediately vowed to return for a 12th night.

In the heady new world of “Nuits Debouts” it was March 40 on Saturday to the some 2,000 people gathered in a main Paris square to share their aspirations for change.

It is their way of keeping track of a protest movement that has seen people flock to the Place de la Republique to air their grievances, seek strength in numbers and strategise for a better future every night since March 31st.

While galvanized by weeks of protests over the Socialist government's labour reforms seen as threatening workers' rights, the separate Nuit Debout movement is an omnibus of causes.

Participants may be fighting for the environment, against Islamophobia and homophobia, for better housing, against unhealthy food – or all of the above.

In the wake of the November jihadist attacks in Paris, many are also opposed to the state of emergency that remains in effect.

Nuits Debouts, which began in Paris and now picked up to around 50 other cities across France, as well as to Belgium and Spain, means occupying central city squares overnight and vacating them in the morning.

'Without political demands, the movement will die out'

“Get Indignant!” is painted on a paving stone in the vast Paris square, a nod to Spain's Indignados, who gave rise to the far-left Podemos party.

Nuits Debouts  also emulates the anti-capitalist Occupy movement and Greece's anti-austerity 700 Euro Generation.

“We haven't seen this for a long time,” said Emeric Degui, 33, an activist with Desobeir (Disobey). The protests against the labour reforms have “awakened awareness”.

The atmosphere is festive, with street theatre and music, a variety of food stalls and many people swigging beers.

But the organization is disciplined, with daily general assemblies and a variety of committees handling practical and political themes.

Speakers take turns at the podium supposedly limited to two minutes, though prominent economist Frederic Lordon, one of the instigators of the movement, took a bit longer, receiving a thunderous welcome.

“Something is arising,” he said. “We are doing something. But what? Without political demands, the movement will die out.”

'Lots of unknowns'
(A woman speaks to the crowd at a “Nuits Debout” gathering in Perpignan, south west France. Photo: AFP)
Elsewhere in Paris, students have been at the forefront of weeks of sometimes violent protests over the Socialist government's labour reforms, which will make it easier for struggling companies to fire people.
The reforms, which have already been diluted once in a bid to placate critics, are considered unlikely to achieve their stated goal of reining in unemployment, which stands at 25 percent among young people.
The turnout in the latest of the often tumultuous labour reform protests was down on Saturday compared with a peak of hundreds of thousands on March 31st.

But Saturday's Nuits Debouts crowd in Paris, at around 2,000 despite rainy weather, was twice as high as a few nights earlier.
The government has taken a benign but dismissive attitude towards the movement, which has seen no violence in contrast to the street protests against the labour reforms.
An exception occurred late Saturday, when several hundred people headed from the Place de la Republique towards the central Paris home of Prime Minister Manuel Valls but were turned away by riot police using tear gas. Valls was not home at the time.
(Protesters hang an effigy of PM Mnauel Valls from the staue in Place de la Republique. Photo: AFP)
“I don't dispute the fact that… people need to ask questions and that should be respected,” government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said Wednesday.
“There's no need for concern.”
Sociologist Albert Ogien told AFP: “It's a modern form of political action, outside of parties, unions, without leaders, without an agenda that says 'we are discussing among citizens what needs to be done'.”
But left-wing activist and filmmaker Francois Ruffin, another architect of Nuits Debouts said: “It's not a spontaneous movement. There's been a lot of work, meetings… It's a voluntary movement that has tapped a latent desire to overcome resignation (to the status quo).”
The movement is still in its early stages, and “has to mature,” said Ruffin, who directed a recent hit film about outsourcing labour. “There are lots of unknowns.”

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French trade union chief slams UK and US over lack of workers’ rights

France does not want to treat its workers like the UK and US, with zero hours contracts and no protection for the unemployed, Philippe Martinez, the head of the hardline CGT, France's biggest trade union, has said.

French trade union chief slams UK and US over lack of workers' rights
Photo: AFP
Last year Martinez and his leftist union fought an unsuccessful battle with President Emmanuel Macron over a raft of reforms aimed at freeing up France's rigid jobs market.
Those controversial reforms cut into the power of France's trade unions and made it easier for firms to lay off staff.
Martinez believes Macron is influenced by the “Anglo-Saxon” model but he does not want to see the same situation in France. 

“Anglo-Saxon countries like the UK and US are Macron's model…his inspiration,” Martinez told a gathering of journalists from the Anglo American Press Association including The Local. 

“I saw an excellent Ken Loach film recently, 'I, Daniel Blake'. And if you think that is an example of a modern society…well,” he shrugged. 
“We don't want to have zero-hours contracts and no rights for the unemployed,” he said.


French labour reforms: What's actually going to change for workers in France

Photo: AFP

Controversial zero-hour contracts stipulate that the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours while the worker is not obliged to accept any work offered.
“Macron is trying to conduct politics away from the unions,” Martinez said. “Political parties have never been as distant from the world of workers as they are now.”

Martinez also had a dig at China, saying: “We don't want to be like China where children are working in factories”. 
He went on to question why Macron hadn't brought up this, and other human rights' issues, on his recent trip there, instead of just “giving them a horse.”
The formidable union leader has been at the helm of the far-left (once Communist) CGT since 2015. 
And since then he has done his best to act as the thorn in the side of the French presidency. 
However, in 2017 the once hugely powerful CGT failed to stop the reform of France's enshrined labour code, as President Emmanuel Macron swept to power and started carrying out the dramatic changes to workers' rights that he had promised.
These included giving small companies in particular more freedom to negotiate working conditions with their employees, rather than being bound by industry-wide collective agreements negotiated by trade unions. 
In 2016 when socialist president Francois Hollande was attempting to reform France's labour code, changes were ditched due to pressure from the unions as demonstrations caused disruption across the country.