An eyewitness account of the struggle in France

We publish below an eyewitness account of the Nuit Debout movement that has, along with massive strike action, been sweeping France. For an analysis of the movement, its strengths and weaknesses, see here: http://www.socialist.net/french-labour-law-strengths-and-weaknesses-of-the-movement.htm

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Since March, a fervour has been sweeping France. In direct opposition to the proposed counter-reforms of la loi pour la croissance et l’activité, which would grant the bosses greater freedom to extend working weeks, without economic compensation, and allow for easier dismissal of their employers the French are debout. The flames of outrage were fanned ever higher by the government’s implementation of Article 493, which pushed through these measures without a single slither of democratic debate either in the French parliament, or among the people and, indeed the workers of France, whose livelihoods this reform directly attacks.

France, in the face of savage attacks on the gains the working people of the country for which they have fought so long and so hard, is standing up in defiance of the treachery of the Partie Socialiste (so-called). Demonstrations and strikes have engulfed the country, underscoring the power of the workers, without whose consent no society could function. However, the contempt and fury has spread further, and perhaps nothing quite exemplifies this general outrage and steely defiance than the Nuit Debout movement. Vehemently antagonistic towards every echelon of the political establishment, unassociated with any political party, ideology or trade union, Nuit Debout is a popular movement in the purest sense of the term. Every strata of French society; young and old, student and professional are gathering on the squares and in the parks of nearly ever city and town in France, to share their stories, to discuss their futures, a most of all, to voice their outrage. To understand, organise and mobilise.

I left London for a few days for the small city of Nimes in the south of France, and attended one meeting of the local Nuit Debout assembly. There were about 20 people in attendance, of a core group of around, I was told, 30. Like in Paris, where Nuit Debout set up their own radio station, they have eschewed the established media in favour of their own paper. The air reverberated with discussion about upcoming demonstrations, news from other Nuit Debout groups from the neighbouring towns of Uzes and Montpellier. Pamphlets were handed round. People greeted me with reserved welcome until I told them I was a student from London, here in solidarity with the movement, and that I wanted to learn more. I spoke with a 22 year old student of civil engineering, Quentin, who told me a little about Nuit Debout in Nimes. Largely unaligned with any political party, most participants were of a mind to spoil their ballots at each election, so disgusted with bourgeois democracy and lack of any genuine alternatives to the main centre-right and left parties. Quentin spoke enthusiastically about the way in which Nuit Debout had given back a political voice to many people who beforehand had felt robbed of one. Each evening was an opportunity for people to gather, to discuss, to feel angry or elated in ways not permitted in parliamentary politics. Before Nuit Debout, he sheepishly admitted, he took no interest in politics. He didn’t vote in the presidential elections. He voted in the municipal elections, but without much thought. And yet now, his eyes light up and he gesticulates wildly, grinning as he recounts le blockage he participated in a couple of weeks prior; the workers could pass, but the merchandise was blocked. He speaks enthusiastically about the coming demonstration in Paris, wherein the demonstrators will enact a ‘funeral parade’ for democracy, all dressed in black, and he applauds the lorry drivers, the first profession mobilised into the indefinite strike, who carried out “Operation Escargot”: the lorries were driven at deliberately slow speeds in an act of glorious defiance. It was obvious how empowered this young man felt by the recent revolutionary sentiment gripping the country; empowered to educate himself, to act. I don’t believe this is an isolated case.

The hope and anger was contagious, and yet I left the meeting unable to come to terms with one irrefutable fact. The future this reform promises, that the French are refusing to accept, is one that in Britain is assumed a depressing inevitability. Outside militant circles, I speak with my peers at university, and their vision of the future is one of being in and out of uncertain petty jobs, with no prospect of buying a home, no welfare system to support them as if they’re trapped in a train hurtling towards a destination they never chose, never desired, but one for which there is no alternative.

I don’t mean to imply the British working class are passive or counterrevolutionary – this year alone we have seen resistance to the brutal attacks of the Conservative government on our livelihoods, be them on the NHS, the universities, or with the forced academisation … with some undeniable gains by those who cannot bear to see the country’s future sold off for profit of a few. But a movement like Nuit Debout? Occupying Trafalgar Square day and night? Swarming the houses of parliament? Shutting down oil refineries? Not as of yet. But the impetus is there. The desire to take control of our futures, to demand a life where everyone has the means to achieve their full potential. You see it on the picket lines, you see it in the pub. We talk, but it’s time to act. What are we waiting for?

by Helen Fortescue, UCLU Marxists