What Is France's 'Nuit Debout' Protest Movement?

08/04/2016_Nuit Debout
A red flag and a black one reading "Nuit Debout" on the Place de la Republique in Paris, April 8, 2016. The protest movement is growing fast. Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

The Nuit Debout ("Up All Night") protest movement that is sweeping France has grown far faster than its ideological cousin, the Occupy Wall Street movement, according to one of the original organizers of that 2011 protest.

"What's remarkable is how fast it happened, just how many people got involved so quickly, it almost has potential for a real social explosion," says David Graeber, an American anthropologist who was heavily involved with Occupy and is currently visiting the Nuit Debout camp in Paris.

So what is the movement, and where is it going?

Beginning on March 31 with a sit-in following a demonstration against a liberalization of France's labour laws, Nuit Debout has long moved on from this specific concern to encompass a much wider set of grievances. Many of its proponents are dissatisfied with a left-wing Socialist Party government that has enacted a broadly centrist programme and, since two devastating attacks by Islamist militants in 2015, has kept France under a sweeping state of emergency laws allowing for warrantless police raids and unauthorized house arrests.

Each night, crowds of more than 1,000 have carried out discursive "general assembly" meetings from 6 p.m. in the Place de la Republique, the Parisian square where people gathered to declare "Je Suis Charlie" in solidarity with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo following a militant attack on its offices in January 2015.

The movement has since spread to towns across France, and camps have been set up in in Brussels and Liege, Belgium; in Berlin, Germany; and in six Spanish cities including Madrid and Barcelona.

Activists have not agreed any specific demands, but Graeber says ideas that have been raised by participants in the meetings he has attended include such radical ideas as replacing conventional elected politicians with a turn-taking jury system for those willing to put their names into a pool, the introduction of a basic income, and debt cancellation. "Politics is not something for professionals, it is for everybody," the group's manifesto says, and it has come under fire from professional politicians left-wing and right-wing alike.

French police on Monday began to evacuate Place de la Republique, but protesters have vowed to return, and a little police interference is unlikely to stop the movement right away.

"There seems to be this sense of betrayal. [It's] the fact that it is an ostensibly left-wing government that did the state of emergency, that did the labor law, that's done a whole series of different things," says Graeber. "These are the people that voted for them… [that] assumed that such a government would somehow speak for their concerns. They're just really pissed off."