Hundreds of thousands of students and union workers may be starting a new French political revolution.



Nuit Debout: The New Political Revolution Sweeping Across France

Over the month of May, 1968, millions of students and union workers in France stood together in a historic protest that, at its height, brought the entire French economy and government to a grinding halt. Now, nearly 48 years after the events of “Mai ’68,” a student revolution is blossoming once again. For nearly two weeks, tens of thousands of people have gathered in the Place de la République in Paris and other cities around France to hold nocturnal nightly protests that they’re calling Nuit debout, or “Standing Up Night.” Sunset after sunset, the numbers have swelled, and the unrest has spread through France and into other European cities. But what started this new protest movement, one that’s already been likened to America’s Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011?

The occupation itself did not appear out of nowhere, but rather was part of a larger wave of discontent that had been building within universities, schools, and union groups for over a month over a proposed reform of French labour laws. The longstanding legislation has become the target of the wildly unpopular French President François Hollande, who is trying to establish a legacy before the 2017 elections. His planned reforms would make it easier for employers to lay off workers and cut costs, allow some employees to work far longer than the standard 35-hour week, and more. The changes, which are about as popular as Martin O’Malley was before he dropped out of the presidential election, led students across the nation to barricade over 90 lycées, or government-funded secondary schools.

This was all before the events of March 31st, when the powder keg of discontent and frustration finally exploded into one of France’s largest political protest movements in years—all thanks to a group of students and union workers who didn’t go home for the night. They’d been at the Place de la République as part of the labor reform protests but, rather than heading home as the sun set on a rainy day of activism, they began a sit-in that had been part of a plan hatched two months earlier. “We were wondering how can we really scare the government? We had an idea: at the next big street protest, we simply wouldn’t go home,” as Michel, 60, a former delivery driver, explained to The Guardian. When the protest that day reached levels that exceeded 390,000 people, the time came for action.

It has now been two weeks since the sit-ins at the République began. And despite desperate attempts to quell the discontent, every night at 6PM the occupation begins again. It is at this hour that a general assembly, much like OWS’s human microphone, makes decisions and leads discussions. From there, small groups gather around different thematic issues, such as democracy, action, feminism, ecology, work, poetry, and gardening. It’s a utopian method of communication that stands in stark contrast to what has become a political system disconnected from the concerns of young people.

The crux of the problem is that France has been mired in 30 years of high unemployment, economic gloom, and disenchantment with the way representative democracy works. This disconnect and frustration with the political system has been a long time coming. This movement has, for the first time in a long time, given them hope for change. “There’s something here that I’ve never seen before in France – all these people converge here each night of their own accord to talk and debate ideas—from housing to the universal wages, refugees, any topic they like,” Michel explained. “No one has told them to, no unions are pushing them on – they’re coming of their own accord.”

Amidst violence and arrests between protesters and police, 120,000 people participated in protests last Saturday. Since then, protesters have come night after night, which is a worrying sign for Hollande and other government officials who expected the surge to have died down by now. Broadcasting over Twitter and Periscope, the students and union workers continue to fight for their rights as the world watches. There may be more protests and strikes than there are baguettes per square mile in France but, as another sleepless night comes, it’s clear that Nuit Debout has struck a chord that’s been simmering for decades.

Images via The Guardian and The Independent.

Stay tuned to Milk for more on this developing story.

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