The Nuit Debout Movement
The French government is struggling to make the labour force more ‘flexible’ with the new Labour law, the so-called El Khomri law, named after the Minister for ‘Work, Employment, Vocational Education and Social Dialogue’.
A million strong petition and numerous demonstrations resulted in a withdrawal of some of the measures envisaged by the law, enough to make the employers association MEDEF call the law useless, and enough to make the union CFDT accept it, but not enough to satisfy everyone. The main sticking point is making local level employer/employee negotiations possibly disregard national level standards, while up to now the minimum industry-wide standard for wages and working conditions could not be watered down.
Since a demonstration on 31 March, all night occupations of various town and city squares are taking place, notably in Paris in the Place de la République, in a movement called Nuit Debout [meaning ‘up all night’. The phrase has no sexual connotation in French].
One of the names behind the occupation in Paris is that of François Ruffin as
the starting point for the occupation was the showing of Ruffin’s film ‘Merci Patron’.
‘Merci Patron!’ [Thanks Boss] tells the true story of a couple made redundant by a Louis Vuitton firm in northern France. During the film the couple got 40,000 euros compensation four years later, and more besides, thanks to a series of coups by the film maker, François Ruffin. Le Monde’s review quoted Michael Moore, Frank Capra and other famous film makers in the same breath as ‘Merci Patron’.
Along the way, we learn that a Kenzo (a Louis Vuitton brand) suit, sold for 1,000 euros but cost 90 euros to make in the French northern town of Poix du Nord; the profit margin being too small, the plant was delocated to Poland, leaving behind a mass of unemployed. This is not inevitable, it’s a political decision, is Ruffin’s demonstration.
This film provokes enthusiasm and a desire to ‘do something’, hence the nightly meetings in Paris and other cities.
So far Ruffin’s line seems to be prevailing, and that is, to connect with the trade unions and make a series of demands, such as the withdrawal of the El Khomri law, and the rejection of TTIP.
Ruffin is particularly sensitive to the gap that exists between the Nuit dEbout , who are of middle class origin, who see their future becoming more and more precarious, and the working class, who don’t feel they have anything in common with these middle class demonstrators, and, for example, don’t go and see the film ‘Merci Patron’ even if its main characters are working class people.
The case of Marseille
The Nuit Debout group in Marseille attempted to spread to a largely immigrant and unemployed district in the North of the city; they contacted associations there but in the end had to give up showing the film, and the locals showed no interest in turning up for discussions.
There is police presence around the meetings, but the movement is being conspicuously allowed to continue, in contrast to the implementation of the state of emergency in other places. Videos of the Place de la Republique show a mass of well dressed young people; they are students. The very fact of being there means that you are in a position where you don’t have to go to get up in the morning, so no job and no children (and you have money to pay for drinks in a café every time you need the toilet). Various ‘commissions’ are springing up, feminists groups organise women only meetings, on 17 April a commission ‘drugs and liberty’ was founded. It is not surprising that the link with trade unions is not happening. On 28th April two texts were adopted to outline the way forward, one by the Nuit Debout General Assembly, one by the unions. François Ruffin, still trying to make the junction between the two, supports both. He would like the demonstrations called by the unions to end Place de la Republique, to mix the two groups of opponents to the El Khomri law.
The aims of the movement
François Ruffin says his aim is for the movement to ‘frighten’ the government. He has a point. But it takes something like the existence of the Soviet Union to really frighten a capitalist government into making concessions, as the anthropologist David Graeber, who came to visit the Place de la Republique said (in 2014):
“Back in the 90s, I used to get into arguments with Russian friends about capitalism. This was a time when most young eastern European intellectuals were avidly embracing everything associated with that particular economic system, even as the proletarian masses of their countries remained deeply suspicious. Whenever I’d remark on some criminal excess of the oligarchs and crooked politicians who were privatising their countries into their own pockets, they would simply shrug.
“If you look at America, there were all sorts of scams like that back in the 19th century with railroads and the like.” I remember one cheerful, bespectacled Russian twentysomething explaining to me. “We are still in the savage stage. It always takes a generation or two for capitalism to civilise itself.”
“And you actually think capitalism will do that all by itself?”
“Look at history! In America you had your robber barons, then – 50 years later – the New Deal. In Europe, you had the social welfare state … ”
“But, Sergei,” I protested (I forget his actual name), “that didn’t happen because capitalists just decided to be nice. That happened because they were all afraid of you.”
“No doubt many factors were involved [in neo-liberalism], but almost everyone seems to be ignoring the most obvious. The period when capitalism seemed capable of providing broad and spreading prosperity was also, precisely, the period when capitalists felt they were not the only game in town: when they faced a global rival in the Soviet bloc, revolutionary anti-capitalist movements from Uruguay to China, and at least the possibility of workers’ uprisings at home. In other words, rather than high rates of growth allowing greater wealth for capitalists to spread around, the fact that capitalists felt the need to buy off at least some portion of the working classes placed more money in ordinary people’s hands, creating increasing consumer demand that was itself largely responsible for the remarkable rates of economic growth that marked capitalism’s “golden age”.”
This analysis is convincing, and explains why the Nuit Debout movement, like any other movement for change, is finding it very difficult to formulate a political way forward.
The immediate aim is to make a link with trade unions to have a large first of May demonstration. Another aim is the fight against TTIP.
France is making slight noises against the Transatlantic Treaty. For example
Matthias Fekl, Secretary of State in charge of ‘international trade, promotion of tourism and the French abroad’, was discussing the Transatlantic Treaty on France Inter in a Sunday morning political programme on 24 April.
Fekl said (in summary):
“I have great doubts about this treaty, it’s an old type treaty from the 90s, when people thought trade was the answer to every problem. In fact trade must be placed at the service of mankind; we are at the end of 30 years of deregulation and things must change; the market does not spontaneously work well. The deindustrialisation that has taken place throughout Western Europe is the result of governments not doing their work of regulation properly.
One opinion poll says 50% of French favour TTIP, 32% against. But it is natural to think that negotiations with an ally is a good thing; however the level of regulation proposed by the treaty is too low. Emmanuel Valls and François Hollande are of the same opinion.
The TTIP negotiations are taking place behind closed doors, this is scandalous. The EU Commission is not allowed to publish texts. From the start of the negotiations in 2013 to January 2016, information was only available at US embassies, even though negotiations concern matters of everyday life, to do with food, energy, health.”
All this sounds good, but will it translate into action? A partisan of TTIP interviewed on the same programme showed up Fekl as ready to say anything to please the public. The decisions taken at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference were all made public in detail, in contrast to TTIP. Why? Because these decisions don’t bind anyone to anything, unlike trade agreements. Fekl weakly tried to contradict this statement, thus showing that he will say anything that sounds good to a public worried about the environment and globalisation.
One consequence of the mobilisation against the El Khomri Labour Law is a slight marginalisation of the National Front, and a slight slowing down in the growth of the number of supporters. Marine Le Pen has cancelled the traditional 1st May march to the statue of Jeanne d’Arc, and replaced it with a 2,000 strong banquet with speeches. Her father will be carrying bouquets of lily of the valley to Jeanne d’Arc at the usual spot in Place de la Concorde.
The unions will be demonstrating against the Labour Law. We will have to see if the movement wins this cause.
France lifting sanctions against Russia?
A first step was taken in this direction on 28th April.
Thierry Mariani, member of the center-right Republicans party, initiated the parliamentary debate on sanctions against Russia; his resolution “calls on the French government not to extend the restrictive measures and economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union.”
55 voted for the motion, 44 against. Since there are 577 MPs, most MPs let this happen rather than directly approved it.
The Russia Today report quotes Mariani: “Useless and ineffective sanctions against Russia have today become a heavy burden for French agriculture. That’s why I urge members of the parliamentary majority to show responsibility and independence in this issue.” Earlier this year, France’s Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs Emmanuel Macron said that by this summer France will assist in lifting Western-imposed sanctions on Russia. In December last year, the European Union prolonged its sanctions against Russia – originally initiated in August of 2014 – for another six months.