By Monday morning the police had evacuated the Place de la République of the protestors and the food stands that had been crowding it for a week or so. But the people and the stands were to be back again Monday evening. And the protests would, and will, continue.
The gathering there seemed in some ways to resemble a kermesse, or fair, with its air of engaged amusement, its polite speechifying and its moments of communal song. But despite the playtime atmosphere and benevolent irritation at the forces of order, this protest nevertheless speaks profoundly to a great many people in France.
It hasn’t quite become as widespread as Occupy Wall Street a few years ago, but Nuit debout, the name of this loose protest movement, has been gaining traction in Paris and little by little around the country.
Nuit debout – or standing night, or up all night or maybe even upright night, though however you phrase it in English it won’t have the same ring as the original (but then, Occupy Wall Street didn’t translate into French) – was sparked by the initial protest against reforms to France’s byzantine labor laws.
The new labor law – referred to here as la loi El Khomri, after the name of the Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri – is as hard to figure out as the 1,300-page labor-law manual that most businesses need not only to consult but to try to comprehend in order to operate.
For a foreigner like me, what’s at stake in the law seems even more incomprehensible. Certainly, I’m not an employee of a French company. And because I’m a self-employed writer, I don’t need to search for work here. I’m at a distance, psychologically speaking, from the day-to-day travails of office workers and job seekers, and I’m also quite a way from being a disenchanted youth who sees a future of unemployment and uncertainty. But since the government’s labor laws have made so much news – and since employment is the topic of so many conversations here – I wanted to try to figure out what the talk and disagreement were all about. And also what the protests really protested. France is a land of la manifestation and also, unfortunately for those of us who are used to less interruption in our daily lives, of grèves, or strikes (mainly of transport) that are called whenever the word reform seems to hint at upending the status quo.
Ostensibly the new law simplifies the onerous tasks of beginning a business and, for employers, of hiring and firing. And apparently, it’s supposed to be better at creating jobs for the young. Unemployment is at 10% here, but among youth 18 to 25 it’s sometimes estimated to be at around 50%. But many young people believe that rather than help create more jobs, or at least make it easier to start a company that might lead to more jobs, this new law will make it harder for them not only to get a job, but will do away with job security (France isn’t a country where one changes jobs very often – and once you’re in a job, you’re often in it for the duration).
The thing is, everyone has a different opinion of what the labor laws will do, and no one can really explain how people will be affected when the laws are enacted. I asked a friend who works in the French Senate if he thought that any of these young protestors had actually read the law that they were protesting, and he said no, but that in essence whether they read it or not didn’t matter. These youth, he said, were manifesting against a general helplessness that most people feel in the face of a government that pays attention to anything other than them: To reelections. To staying in office. To holding onto whatever it is that power represents for them. To staying apart from the common folk they supposedly represent.
But the Nuit debout movement is more than the confusion and mistrust and even anger over needed reforms to the country’s grueling labor laws. Like many protests everywhere, and perhaps more in France, which guards a lingering belief in its concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity in the face of today’s harsher reality, the idea of the protest is, in effect, its power. Demonstrations might not lead to change, but they do reflect the discontentment of many.
As a commentator on the radio station France Inter said yesterday, the most obvious reference among the protesters – and the most mythic – has been the Commune de Paris (you could see “Vive La Commune” scrawled here and there around the Place de la République). The Commune – actually the socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from March to May in 1871, but that really represents for people an uprising that refused to accept the authority of the national French government – remains vivid in the public imagination. It’s an idea of a reality that no one can actually remember.
But that’s the point. That’s often the point with protests. That’s often the point with life itself. The idea is the reality. That’s the point even with France itself, a country that people visit for the history or attitude that it seems to represent, or for the culture that it seems to embody.
And like visitors who cling to that idea regardless of how their actual visit unfurls, the protesters of the Nuit debout movement want a better world than the one they’re faced with regardless of whether that world will actually change for them in the near future. Their disappointment and even their outrage reflect a similar deep disenchantment with political cronyism everywhere and the sense that the system – financial, political, whatever – is rigged against them in favor of the already-powerful or the already-rich.
But what can you do in the face of such entrenched inequality, or such institutionalized corruption? You can mass together and talk and listen. And you can know that even if nothing changes, you’ve at least made a stand for something. And that’s the point too. To affirm, in the face of entrenched indifference to who you are and to what you believe, that you actually matter.