“Hey! Ey! You English?”
“Oui, de Londres.”
I am saying goodbye to some friends in the Place de la République, the place of the nightly gatherings of Nuit Debout. The old drunk man wears a red cap. He follows me across the square. Before I finally shake him off, the last thing I hear is: “In London, you think… there will be revolution too?”
Here are some brief thoughts on the possibility of answering the drunk man’s question:
1. An introduction of sorts.
Nuit Debout began as a movement against labour market deregulation initiated by the ostensibly Socialist party (PS). The proposal by labour minister Myriam El Khomri seeks to liquidate the idea of a fixed working week, namely, to change the French working week limit of 35 hours to 60 hours. This means the eradication of overtime for the French labour market – something business lobby MEDEF has been desperate to achieve for years.
El Khomri’s proposal to the code du travail also seeks to make it easier for companies to fire workers without due cause. In short, a typical precarisation of labour and a reshuffling of the pack in favour of the owners of companies. As Jonah Birch puts it in an excellent article for Jacobin: “Decentralized bargaining would rule over legal regulation and sectoral negotiations.”
To me, this proposal is the other side of the coin to the Panama Papers. The Mossack Fonseca leak showed that, in relation to tax, the law and the state are able to collude in two registers: on the one hand, demonstrably broke and having to swinge the welfare state, and on the other, entirely complicit – as David Cameron, Vladimir Putin, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and José Manuel Soria so clearly are – in applying the law to increase and maintain their power and wealth.
I think it is possible to understand the El Khomri law in this way: it is nothing other than an attempt to establish a secondary rule of law for the wealthiest. To this, those at Nuit Debout are talking every night about how to construct a counter-power: that of the general strike.
2. Moving on from the movement of the squares.
There are two important strategic innovations of Nuit Debout. Firstly, the occupation only meets at night, dismantling its temporary structures, such as tents and stalls, in order that the police cannot begin to apply the law to remove them. Then, every afternoon, they reappear as they were. This tactical nous gives the movement the advantage of the initiative and means they hold the square in much the same way as if physical structures had remained there since the start. The open-ended and fluid nature of this is important.
Secondly, although there is some use of the famous jazz hands of Occupy, it is not considered as a prefigurative political gesture. We are already in the world after jazz hands and, while some do insist upon them, it is not necessary for them to be deployed; the assembling together of Nuit Debout is sufficient without them. This fluidity increases the movement’s strength.
3. A new situation?
In this context, the energy around Nuit Debout is electric. On the night of my arrival, I met with some friends of friends – one Italian, one Quebecer, one Mexican – and we were talking. As the Métro intermittently rumbled the pavement beneath us, a man approached. He asked: was this a political discussion? My friend replied: no, not really, just an informal chat. The man left, embarrassed. Almost immediately, we had realised our mistake – all five of us, the four of us and the stranger, were still operating by old social rules. This was not what the Place de la République was about! Here the line between public and private, between political and apolitical had been blurred until there was no distinction, no border between these worlds. All friendship had become political.
Marianne herself is now a beautiful sight, covered with graffiti, paint, string, duct tape, photographs and flags; she looks as she is supposed to be really. When George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in 1936, he wrote in Homage to Catalonia: “It was the first time I had ever been to a town where the working class had been in the saddle.” He talked about the black and red anarchist flags draped over every building – the places and institutions that wield power had decisively changed for the prospects of ordinary working people, and the city had been restructured and repainted as such. Seeing Marianne, the woman of the French revolution, made me briefly hopeful of witnessing something akin to what Orwell witnessed then.
4. The protest singer and the policeman.
However, there are two figures trying to stop the movement. On 5 May, the day of Karl Marx’s 196th birthday, a man with an acoustic guitar began to play ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol in front of Marianne. If the aural approximation of a laxative was not enough, he followed it up with ‘Let It Be’ by The Beatles, which seemed to me to be the precise opposite of Nuit Debout.
The purpose, or at least, one of the purposes, of Nuit Debout and its antecedents of the squares since 2011, is to constitute itself as a legitimate political authority outside that of the state. It is constitutionally unconcerned with letting anything be. In fact it is specifically to deprive the world of the Panama Papers of its sense of calm. The protest singer kept playing in the afternoon sun, now it was the homage to the 60s: ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon.
The song selection proved the conservatism of the protest singer. Nuit Debout has created a situation where the realm of the possible and the realm of the empirical have become interdependent and mixed up in some strange way. It is not that a table is just a table in this moment, instead, just as in dreams, the paradoxical and the perverse can be held and entertained until a new situation or even a new common sense prevails. The protest singer wants us to only imagine but never to truly pursue the reality of our dreams.
This is one side of the attack that the politicians choose to use: they say that the Place de la République is just a nice place for citizens to have a little talk about democracy, or which way to vote for which politician of the incumbent order.
The policeman, on the other hand, he too hates Nuit Debout and seeks to disrupt it in an entirely different way, equally mischievous. The policeman aims to divide the protest between the good protestor and the bad. This is the method tout court and it works effectively. Here is an eyewitness account of a manifestation:
My friends and I were in a march for the 1st of May, an annual march for the workers. This time, it was against the new labour law they are trying to implement in France. The riot police – CRS – cut off the march in two, supposedly because there were some dangerous elements in the front – I don’t know if it’s true. They blocked us around 45 minutes. When they finally let us pass, some of the protesters got angry and started throwing things on the police. So they threw tear gas grenades on everyone, including families and children…
There were some violent elements, but the police response is, in my opinion, disproportionate… And it’s sad, because this brings us away from the real goal of Nuit Debout: a change in the political system, with more participative democracy, and the attempt to build an alternative economic system.
I think this addresses the method of the police precisely: they physically cut the movement in two to turn them against each other. Most nights the movement gathers itself by marching around the plinth of Marianne, round and round, attracting more and more people, until it is ready to act. But as soon as the police make their incision, our target – the law of El Khomri and its world – is lost. Amidst the tear gas one half says the other half is ‘a shame’, or “brings us away from the real goal.”
The police then, always want to conjure their long-term partner, the figure of the radical, in order to split the masked – those willing to attack private property and the state – from the unmasked, who do not want to take on the power of the state in this one-to-one confrontation, but are there to camouflage and protect the masked. The movement can maintain its energy if it understands in a popular way that the very facticity of your body in the square automatically renders you a persona non grata for the state. We are all persona non gratae!
5. And London.
I said to the drunk man that I am hopeful, and I guess you always have to maintain a kind of Herculean optimism of the will, to honour Gramsci, but I think the copycat protest Nuit Debout London has already made the kind of axiomatic mistakes that have a habit of biting you in the arse later on.
For example, meeting outside Downing Street is face-palmingly antithetical to any kind of forward momentum. The really key and brilliant thing about Nuit Debout is that it is occupying both the specific – the El Khomri attack on workers’ rights – and the general: it is against the world that finds El Khomri’s proposal acceptable. Maintaining a space in a geographical relationship to Downing Street is useful for the first register but abandons the potential potency of the second. It also means once the specific battleground (as with student fees in 2010) is resolved for better or worse – either passed or rejected – the whole dynamism of the movement runs out of energy.
To my mind it makes much more sense to stage Nuit Debout London at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. This is a space historically tolerated by British parliaments for people to assemble, but this tolerance can be turned upon itself.
The government already understands this, for in 2014 – without much fuss – it passed the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, which allows the police to issue a ‘public spaces protection order’ to prohibit certain activities in a public space if: a) they are “likely to be of a persistent nature” and b) “activities carried on in a public place within the authority’s area have had a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality.”
The definitions are so fulsomely vague that it is easy to understand this as a legal response to the 2011 English riots and to Occupy. To sum up, it entails that the only body allowed to assemble publicly in any kind of way is parliament itself. Thus, to assemble, to call oneself together, to challenge this law, is already to constitute ourselves as a counter-authority to that of parliament.
6. Global Debout.
This weekend, activists from all over the world have been gathering in Paris for a planning meeting for next week’s Global Debout, on 15 May. I spoke to an Italian who had worked in a pub on London Fields and hated it. He said: “We are organising the transnational strike with Plan C and Angry Workers in your country but it is very difficult – how do you construct a situation where everyone goes on strike?”
“But what about the Inter-Planetary strike?”
“Ha! Yes well, but one step at a time.”
This weekend across the world people young and old are raising a glass and saying “Vive la Commune! Vive la Révolution!” and it doesn’t feel stupid or unbelievable at all. The next week is very critical.
Photos: John Sheil/Novara Media
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