Every evening since 31 March, gatherings of around 2,000 people have been debating and organising in Place de la Republique, a central square in Paris.
This is the “Nuit debout” movement, often translated as “Night on our feet”, born out of the resistance against the Labour-type government’s attack on workers’ rights.
The general meetings start at 6pm. Last night—Thursday 14 April, although here they call it Thursday 45 March—looked like it could have been a disappointment. Riot police had been closing in at the start of the week, and it's raining. But no, it’s the now usual crowd of a few thousands.
It is extraordinary that after 15 days thousands of people would choose to gather to discuss politics and movement-building in the rain for hours on end is extraordinary.
About half the crowd is engaged in the general meeting in the southern part of the square. All around there are many stalls and smaller groups.
At one “Hospital on its feet” stall around 100 people are listening to health workers in white coats talking about saving the health system and stopping hospital closures.
There’s also an anarchist bookstall, a “give one take one” free library, a stall against French imperialism in Africa, a law advice clinic, a degrowth stall, and an ecology and climate stall. Then there’s a meeting of the animal rights commission, and a feminist debate with about 50 people taking part.
There’s a self-managed and very successful food stall, and tents where web radio and video broadcasts are sent live from the square.
The only party political presence was a small New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) table, although other groups have turned up on previous evenings.
“We would rather be on our feet at night than on our knees during the day.”
Though NPA comrades say they have encountered a lot of sympathy and very little hostility from participants in the square meetings, political parties have largely remained aloof.
The mood is not vehemently anti-party. Trade unions and campaign groups are welcome. But there is a strong sense that things have to be decided here and carried out by the people here.
The general meeting starts an hour late, but it proceeds with impressive smoothness. There is a constant interaction between the general meeting and the various commissions which have been formed and which anybody can join.
The chair comes from the “moderation commission”, which has met earlier in the afternoon. She starts by explaining that every speaker will have two minutes and no more, and that people can express their disagreements, approval, or other feedback with nine different gestures.
There are signs for “speak up” and “move on, we've already heard this a million times”, among others. These are drawn on a sign by the side of the “stage”.
The two minute limit makes it hard to get bored, especially given the wide variety of speakers. Here’s a batch of some of the first speakers last night.
One woman said, “We need more humanity in this world. I went to the restaurant over there to use the toilets and they wouldn't let me. People are hypocrites.”
Another woman said, “I’m from the housing commission which has just formed. We met for the first time this afternoon and set up a list of fields we're going to be working on, including evictions, rents and housing speculation. On Saturday morning there'll be an action against expulsions, we'll meet at 10am.”
Next up a woman called Malika, from housing campaign DAL, read out a poem she had written against the government’s proposed new Work Law. It has the line, “I support the nights on our feet, even though my knees are hurting.” She got a lot of applause.
A man from the logistics commission said, “We need help unloading vans. If there are any DIY enthusiasts, we’ll also need help for building light structures.”
A commission has been set up to bring the movement into the often poor outlying suburbs, or banlieues, of Paris. A woman reported from it, “Many have already taken place, with hundreds of people in a number of towns.
“And I also want to say to the journalists who say that the Nuit Debout is for people who have a lot of time and don't work that I work every day, but I still find time to work on the commission and come here every other night!”
There are signs for “speak up” and “move on, we've already heard this a million times”, among others.
A man who makes videos of the square to broadcast online through the Periscope app, said, “Thousands of people are watching from their homes and it’s important to talk to them too. I also want to say that we can change things by being more responsible consumers.”
A woman argued, “We should also have meetings during the day for people who can’t come in the evening. And we should occupy other squares in Paris.”
A man from the manifesto commission explained, “We want to be writing a manifesto stating what this is all about but we're worried about not having the legitimacy. So we want to talk to people from other commissions and other Nuits Debout around France, and abroad.”
Woman: “I’m from the migrants’ commission. We’re thinking of ways to help the migrants who have set up camp near the Stalingrad metro station. There will be a ‘mystery action’ at 8pm, please join. Tomorrow a group of undocumented migrants will come to the square.”
In the smaller groups all around the square the discussions involved the same variety of speakers. People having their first political experience mix with seasoned activists, big general ideas are debated alongside planning for and implementing concrete actions.
In the feminist tent a call for a demonstration in solidarity with women strikers led to a general debate on the place of men in the fight against sexism.
The actions may be small—or spectacular like the “Let’s have a drink with the prime minister” action last Saturday night. Some 2,000 people suddenly marched towards the home of prime minister Manuel Valls at 11pm, panicking the ranks of the totally unprepared police.
Nearby on the river Seine, a huge graffiti proclaims, “We would rather be on our feet at night than on our knees during the day.”