Mediterranean journeys in hope

The common humanity of Nuit Debout

The Nuit Debout movement has effectively challenged state power in many cities, forcing people to think about how their struggles articulate with those of others.

Janina Pescinski
3 June 2016

Paris, Nuit Debout. Olivier Ortelpa/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Earlier this month, police in Paris evacuated a vacant high school that had been occupied by homeless migrants for about two weeks. In a hopeful sign of solidarity, over 100 individuals, many of whom identify with nascent Nuit Debout movement, demonstrated against the evacuation.

Nuit Debout – literally ‘standing night’ – is a social movement taking over public squares in cities from Paris to Marseille to Lille, and it has even spread internationally to cities like Berlin and Barcelona. The movement was sparked by demonstrations against a proposed labour law reform in France, but it quickly broadened to encompass many concerns in contemporary European societies. Participants identify their struggles in terms of feminism, racial equality, antifascism, environmentalism, democracy, and more, and they seek to forge alliances between these ideologies in what they call a “confluence of struggles”.

There is a common perception that students have instigated Nuit Debout and that therefore the majority of participants are young and well-educated idealists. The results of a new study contest this, indicating not only much greater diversity than is often assumed but also an awareness among members that the diversity of the movement could still be improved. For example, the study found that two-thirds of attendees were male, possibly due to the fact that meetings often take place at late hours in exposed public places that might increase women’s vulnerability to street harassment. This topic has been taken up by feminist working groups and the Nuit Debout General Assembly in order to find inclusive solutions.

The diverse participants are united by a common sentiment that “democracy doesn't exist anymore in France”, as one participant explained. They hope Nuit Debout will challenge that by creating a direct democracy of the people that exists outside formal political structures. They believe that “the reinvention of a new system is possible, far from political parties”. Importantly, this allows for the participation of anyone, in contrast to the rights of formal political participation that are only accorded to citizens. Citizens and non-citizens alike participate “in order to reflect together on progressive values that improve everyday life for the most people”, explains a participant in his mid-20s. Migrants and asylum seekers are included in that movement on the same level as any other individual, regardless of their race, religion, or legal immigration status.

Solidarity with migrants

Nuit Debout attempts to include migrant voices and amplify their concerns when they cannot speak for themselves. This was the intention of the demonstration against the evacuation of the high school. One demonstrator, who participates regularly in the activities of Nuit Debout, described his experience as follows:

I arrived at the Jean Jaurès high school at 5 a.m. This school has been empty for five years. We were about a hundred people. At 6 a.m., we saw very simple buses arrive, white without any writing. They were supposed to transport the migrants. An off-putting detail: the seats were covered in plastic bags, as if obviously the migrants were dirty and carrying diseases.

These buses were followed by several police vans. The cops got out of their vans and we formed a human chain in front of the school. The police attacked us directly without warning: strikes from shields and batons, followed by tear gas. They messed up with the spray because they moved forward while spraying it, so they got it in their faces too.


Denis Bocquet/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

It was the first time I experienced tear gas. I thought I was going to die, I couldn´t see anything, I was stumbling, I felt sick. Everyone was in the same state, not many people had protection. The result of these brutalities was instant: the human chain didn’t hold for five minutes...

The police had one trashcan thrown at them, nothing else. One stupid journalist started recording in front of the camera saying that demonstrators were throwing things at the police.

After that the police tried to open the door of the school. Seeing that, we went around to the other entrance. There, we peacefully surrounded a bus, sitting down to prevent it from moving. The bus was covered with graffiti and one tire was deflated. The police watched us. They were joined by their colleagues from the other side of the street. We were stuck, we couldn’t leave the street.

The situation continued like that for five hours. Neighbours brought us biscuits and coffee and let us use the bathrooms in their homes. People tried to start a dialogue with the cops, without success. We were very peaceful.

Finally, around 9 a.m., the cops evacuated the migrants from the school, handcuffing them. We couldn’t intervene, everything happened behind the police line. All the migrants were put on the buses.

What is striking in this testimony, more so than the police aggression or the criticism of the media coverage, are the signs of solidarity: the human chain, the neighbours who share snacks and open their homes, the refusal to see migrants as dirty and disease-ridden. On the micro-scale of one street in one city, individuals chose to unite because of their common humanity rather than let themselves be divided.

One demonstrator explained that “we didn’t prevent the expulsion of the migrants, but in any case that was impossible”. Even knowing before hand that their actions could not stop the inevitable, people showed up to voice their opposition, to attract media attention so that government forces couldn’t act with impunity, and to start a dialogue about how society should provide for migrants. These citizens have appointed themselves watchdogs of government forces, acting in solidarity to protect the dignity and rights of those who do not have papers and cannot do so for themselves.

Support for migrants goes beyond the most visible demonstrations. Nuit Debout supporters had helped open this high school to house migrants in the first place. They have also defended a migrant camp against police harassment, organised free legal consultations, and provided food, water and clothing to those who need them.

This past weekend in Paris there was a day dedicated to the consideration of borders and migrants. Events ranged from refugee testimonies to a discussion of transnational labour migration to an open question and answer session. Such critical reflection is central to Nuit Debout’s mission to rethink societal values. Another part of Nuit Debout’s mission is to reappropriate public spaces, and including migrants in that mission reasserts their right to visibility and voice. Rather than periodically acting in solidarity with the cause of migrants, Nuit Debout sees the inclusion of migrants’ struggles as integral to the movement’s overall success.

Grounding a lofty movement in a local context

Despite its far-reaching, seemingly idealistic goals, Nuit Debout has sustained itself for nearly two months and shows no sign of stopping because concrete actions remain grounded in their local contexts. What started as a spontaneous demonstration has quickly self-organised into a daily practice of direct democracy at the city level. Each local movement creates its own structure, working groups, goals, actions, united by the overall ideology. In contrast to xenophobic discourse and anti-migrant protests, the solidarity with migrants that is visible in Nuit Debout's actions provides new hope for the hospitable reception of migrants in Europe.

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