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From the Field

Nuits Debout Across Greater Paris: The Spread of a Political Innovation

As France experiences strikes and demonstrations in protest against pension reforms, we look back to the spring of 2016 and the Nuit Debout movement that developed almost spontaneously in opposition to a proposed shake‑up of France’s labor laws. Although Place de la République in Paris was the nexus of events—and virtually the sole focus of media attention—plenty was going on elsewhere in France, especially in towns and suburbs around Paris, where local offshoots sought to redefine citizen involvement. Laurent Beauguitte and Nicolas Lambert examine the figures and factors that influenced the spread of Nuit Debout across the Paris region.

The social movement against the proposed Loi Travail (French Labor Law) of spring 2016 saw the emergence of a new political form in France, known as Nuit Debout (“Up All Night”), or perhaps more accurately Nuits Debout in the plural (hereafter “ND”). For although this movement was indeed initially a single Paris-based phenomenon (Smithsimon 2016), inspired in particular by Los Indignados in Spain and New York’s Occupy movement, [1] the call to “not go home” launched on the evening of March 31 gradually spread, leading to the creation of many NDs in France and farther afield (mainly in neighboring countries, particularly Belgium and Spain).

The approach we have adopted here involves methods of spatial analysis: we consider the ND phenomenon as a political innovation whose geographical diffusion can be studied. The form of spontaneous, open people’s assemblies, open to all in the public space, had never been so successful in France. But it did not appear everywhere with the same intensity or on the same timescale. We first propose to define ND as an object, before studying its spread across the Île-de-France (greater Paris) region [2] between April and July 2016. Finally, we will propose a statistical model to try to explain the geographical locations of ND events. From the very beginning, the question of where to mobilize and gather was raised by ND organizers, and the apparent absence of “working-class neighborhoods” among selected locations was raised both by participants in the assemblies and by the media. By conducting a detailed study of the emergence of ND in Île-de-France, we are able to qualify comments made in spring 2016.

Measuring the spread of Nuit(s) Debout across Île-de-France

The origins of Nuit Debout lie in a call “not to go home” and instead to occupy Place de la République, an emblematic square in east-central Paris that is frequently the location of political demonstrations and the starting point of protest marches. Indeed, this call was issued following a protest march held on March 31, 2016, against the Loi Travail proposed by the center-left government of the time (led by prime minister Manuel Valls, under the presidency of François Hollande). This call had been prepared over previous weeks by several emblematic groups and individuals—for example, Frédéric Lordon of the Économistes Atterrés (Appalled Economists) association, François Ruffin of the left-wing journal Fakir, the Jolie Môme theater company, ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and for Citizens’ Action), and the Droit au Logement (Right to Housing) association. [3] Something that was planned to take place over two or three nights ended up lasting more than three months. In the first week of April, ND events emerged in different regions of France, in the suburbs of major cities, and finally in other neighborhoods of Paris (beyond Place de la République).

Defining this phenomenon is a delicate matter because the forms taken by these assemblies varied so much. However, common features included the pointed refusal to nominate any spokespersons, a deliberate lack of hierarchy (achieved with varying degrees of success, depending on the case) and a stated desire for a convergence of (left-wing) struggles. The emblematic political form taken by ND events is the general assembly where the floor is theoretically open to all; however, the movement exhibited great diversity in its discourse and practices, which may have prevented the development of a clear line of political discourse (Les Temps modernes 2016; Le Marec et al. 2017).

We analyzed three main media sources to find out where and when ND assemblies were taking place: the wiki set up for the movement (https://wiki.nuitdebout.fr); the Facebook and Twitter accounts of the various NDs; and the blogs created by certain NDs (e.g. in the broadly working-class northern suburb of Saint-Ouen). The information obtained was of varying reliability and/or completeness, depending on the location: some meetings that had been announced were cancelled owing to a lack of participants (e.g. in the rather more chic northern suburb of Enghien-les-Bains); others were announced only on posters or via internal mailing lists (e.g. in the 13th arrondissement [4] of Paris). The incomplete nature of these sources led us to restrict our study to the Île-de-France region, [5] where we were able to complement the data (Lambert 2016) with a participant observation process for several assemblies in city neighborhoods and suburban areas between April and July 2016. [6]

A rapid and uneven spread

Between April 1 and July 31, 2016, more than 320 general assemblies were held in Île-de-France, in 42 different towns and Paris arrondissements. The daily assemblies of “ND République” are not included in this total. All but two of these meetings were held on Place de la République. The exceptions were one assembly that took place in front of the Théâtre de l’Odeon on April 25, 2016, during its occupation by workers in the entertainment and performing-arts industry known as intermittents du spectacle, who benefit from a special employment status that takes account of the non-continuous nature of work in this sector; and one held in front of the National Assembly (the lower chamber of the French Parliament) on May 10, 2016, during the adoption of the labor-law reforms proposed by the employment minister, Myriam El Khomri law, which was forced through parliament using a mechanism called Article 49.3. It is important to note, however—and this has been confirmed by various participants—that almost all the people who went on to organize ND events elsewhere in the Île-de-France region had first been involved in ND République.

Following a first assembly outside Paris—in Fontainebleau, an affluent town on the southern edge of Île-de-France—on April 7, the number of assemblies increased sharply (Figure 1) to reach a peak of 35 assemblies in the week beginning May 9 (week 19 on the graph). From mid-June, a downward trend can be observed heading into July (weeks 27 to 30). This slower pace does not seem to be linked to the dynamics of the movement against the Loi Travail, as the largest Parisian demonstration took place on June 14. However, the decline began in the week that the Alliance police union organized a rally in Place de la République, when a patrol car was burned during an unofficial demonstration (on May 18). The media outcry that followed may in part explain this ebb in the number of assemblies.

Figure 1. Weekly number of Nuit Debout gatherings in the Île-de-France region, by département – April to July 2016

Source: authors’ own work.

The départements of Paris and Val-de-Marne follow similar trends (a slow decrease in the number of assemblies), while Essonne, Val-d’Oise and Seine-et-Marne maintained a stable (albeit low) number of assemblies throughout the period in question. The dynamics are more difficult to determine in Seine-Saint-Denis (two peaks of 10 assemblies: one in the week beginning April 6 and the other in the week beginning May 4) and in Hauts-de-Seine (where there was a peak in the first week of June). In the Yvelines départements, the numerous initiatives observed in April were to be short-lived, with no trace of ND events after May 25.

If we map the places where these assemblies took place (Figure 2), a strong presence can be observed in inner-ring départements and, conversely, a notable absence in outer-ring départements. Some assemblies were roving, such as “ND en Beauce” (based in the large farming region of Beauce, which straddles the southern boundary of Île-de-France), which explains the scattering of points around the town of Étampes.

Figure 2. Locations of Nuit Debout gatherings – April to July 2016

Source: authors’ own work.

A handful of assemblies had only fleeting existences: just one assembly took place at Le Kremlin-Bicêtre, in the southern inner suburbs, and only two each took place in neighboring Gentilly and at La Verrière, in the southwestern outer suburbs. Other assemblies were held at irregular intervals. For exampe, ND Saint-Ouen organized 23 assemblies between April 12 and the end of June: they were held every evening from April 12 to 16, then four times a week until May 26—two in the evening in front of the town hall and two at noon in front of the commuter rail station—before settling into a weekly schedule in June. Those NDs that emerged later on (Place des Fêtes, in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, on April 23; Sorbier–Ménilmontant, in the 20th arrondissement, on April 24) adopted a regular weekly rhythm during the summer period from the outset.

Why here and not elsewhere?

ND assemblies were held in a total of 42 municipalities and arrondissements in Île-de-France during the period studied. The least populated of these municipalities was the village of Saint-Escobille in Essonne, on the very southern edge of the region, with 483 inhabitants. The comparative data that follow deal first with these 42 municipalities and arrondissements and then with the 969 municipalities and arrondissements in Île-de-France with more than 480 inhabitants where no ND events occurred.

The places concerned by ND assemblies are generally more populous (with a median population of 47,000, versus 9,800 in the rest of Île-de-France). With regard to the mean and median proportions of higher socioprofessional categories [7] and university graduates, no significant differences were observed in the two sets of municipalities. However, in municipalities where NDs did appear, 15- to 44-year-olds represent on average 44% of the population (median value: 43%), while in municipalities not concerned by ND this age group accounts for 38% of the population on average (median value: 37%).

The hypotheses we have put forward to explain why ND events emerge in a given place are largely based on the results obtained by Stéphane Baciocchi et al. (2016) concerning ND République participants. Their work shows in particular a high proportion of university graduates, a particularly high proportion of unemployed people, and a strong overrepresentation of men. We did not test this last variable, however, as there is very little variation in the ratio of women to men in municipalities in Île-de-France.

We also tested the following hypotheses:

  • the more populated the municipality/arrondissement, the greater the likelihood of ND events emerging;
  • ND brings together first and foremost people let down by Manuel Valls’s (ostensibly left-of-center) Parti Socialiste government; ND events tend to emerge in municipalities/arrondissements where a majority of electors voted for the Parti Socialiste;
  • the higher the level of educational qualifications in a municipality/arrondissement, the greater the likelihood of ND events emerging;
  • the higher the unemployment rate in a municipality/arrondissement, the greater the likelihood of ND events emerging. [8]

Following these analyses, it seems that the proportion of university graduates in the working population is not a sufficiently significant factor to explain the presence of ND events in a given area. By contrast, the size of the municipality/arrondissement does play a major role: the higher its population, the more likely it is that ND events will emerge. The second key explanatory factor is the unemployment rate: the higher it is, the greater the probability of ND events emerging. Conversely, a low level of voter support for the Parti Socialiste in the second round of the 2015 regional elections (the last elections to take place before Nuit Debout occurred) reduces the chances of an ND assembly emerging. In short, in the Île-de-France region, NDs emerged primarily in left-leaning, densely populated municipalities and arrondissements with high rates of unemployment.

This first model merits further refinement and enhancement. For example, we tested different measurements of distances from amenities considered relevant, such as universities, for students (whether unionized or not) who had initiated certain NDs, such as in Marne-la-Vallée (a large new town in the outer eastern suburbs). However, the density of amenities in the area studied is so high that these variables did not appear to be significant. Taking a larger area into consideration would doubtless make it possible to evaluate the robustness of this model for the Île-de-France region.

The overall approach adopted could not, however, accommodate the study of two key aspects: the profiles and trajectories of the people who organized the various NDs in Île-de-France; and the future of the various collectives that came into being in the spring of 2016 as a result of these assemblies. The sheer diversity we observed during our field surveys prevents us from being able to generalize on this point. While it was possible to collect significant empirical material for some of these assemblies (interviews, archives, field notebooks), many of them remain poorly documented or indeed not documented at all. Our objective here was both to map the spread of the phenomenon and to show that ND did not only concern Place de la République in Paris.

The impact of Nuit(s) Debout

Like the Occupy movement analyzed by Calhoun (2013), Nuit Debout is probably more of a moment than a movement. The various ND websites are no longer updated and have been gradually disappearing, one after another [9]; the few attempts to relaunch the assemblies on Place de la République in Paris have had mixed success, with some doing poorly (e.g. the back-to-school period from August 31 to September 4), and others doing much better (e.g. the weekend of November 5–6 and the anniversary weekend of March 31, 2017), in terms of botj attendance and media impact. Some assemblies continued their activities right up to August 2017 (such as ND en Beauce, Debout Place des Fêtes), at which point the Nuit Debout label officially ceased to be used by collectives resulting from the events of spring 2016.

A study of the effect of ND events on the personal and political trajectories of participants would undoubtedly be necessary in order to measure the full impact of this phenomenon, beyond the sole consideration of the geographical locations of assemblies examined here. While Nuit Debout no longer exists per se, many initiatives (such as Génération Ingouvernable, or “Ungovernable Generation”) can trace some or all of their origins back to Nuit Debout (Gérard and Bertina 2018) As one stalwart participant in an assembly in northeastern Paris stated: “There are networks that have formed that did not exist before [...] people who aren’t familiar with this scene say, ‘yeah, your thing, it looks dead’; in fact, it is absolutely not dead. It’s just that there’s no one in Place de la République because people are working elsewhere, you know, that’s all.” [10]

Bibliography

  • Baciocchi, S., Bidet, A., Blavier, P., Boutet, M., Champenois, L., Gayet‑Viaud, C. and Le Méner, E. 2016. “Qui vient à Nuit debout ? Des sociologues répondent”, Reporterre, 17 May.
  • Blumenkranz, C., Gessen, K., Greif, M., Leonard, S., Resnick, S., Saval, N., Scmitt, E. and Taylor, A (eds.). 2011. Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America, New York: Verso.
  • Calhoun, C. 2013. “Occupy Wall Street in perspective”, British Journal of Sociology, vol. 64, no. 1, pp. 26–38.
  • Combes, H., Garibay, D. and Goirand, C. (eds.). 2015. Les Lieux de la colère. Occuper l’espace pour contester, de Madrid à Sanaa, Paris: L’Harmattan.
  • Lambert, N. 2016. “Nuit debout! (2)”, Néocarto [online research log], 24 April.
  • Gérard, V. and Bertina, A. 2018. “Occupy la République. Place de la République, Paris”, in Collectif Inculte (eds.), Le Livre des places, Paris: Inculte/Dernière Marge, pp. 239–264.
  • Le Marec, J., Moret, H. and Vergopoulos, H. 2017. Nuit debout et maintenant ? Médias et (im)médiations, Paris: MkF Éditions.
  • Les Temps modernes. 2016. “Nuit debout et notre monde”, no. 691, November–December.
  • Mathieu, L. 2007. “L’espace des mouvements sociaux”, Politix, vol. 20, no. 77, pp. 131–151.
  • Smithsimon, G. 2016. “The French Republic and the Paris Spring”, Metropolitics, 6 September.

To quote this article :

Laurent Beauguitte & Nicolas Lambert & translated by Oliver Waine, « Nuits Debout Across Greater Paris: The Spread of a Political Innovation », Metropolitics, 20 December 2019. URL : https://metropolitics.org/Nuits-Debout-Across-Greater-Paris-The-Spread-of-a-Political-Innovation.html

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