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O l i v i e r

O r t e l p a

Nuit Debout is characterised by direct democracy. Instead of a delegation of power in which representatives are sent to make decisions on our behalf, this system lets participants make their own decisions during general meetings using a form of consensus, although it is clear at this time that it may be complicated to put into action.

The Nuit Debout protests have been shaped by similar forces – and in similar ways – to the movements that have developed in many parts of the world over the past five years: the ‘Arab spring’ in 2011, the ‘indignados’ anti-austerity movement in Spain, the Occupy movement in the US and England, followed by the Turkish and Brazilian movements in 2013, through to the mobilisation that has recently developed in Hong Kong. The Nuit Debout phenomenon is part of this continuum, although there are two major differences: the assemblies take place at night and the public square is not permanently occupied. Yet the state of mind is clearly the same.

Taking root Central to this is the idea of demonstrations ‘taking root’. Since the 1990s, among the different forms of protest, street demonstrations have become more frequent all over the world. This was clearly the case in France in 1995 when, hand-inhand with the railroad workers’ strike against job losses and changes to the retirement age, the ‘Juppéthon’ phenomenon developed with the objective of reaching one million protestors – a target given by the former prime minister Alain Juppé himself if he was to abandon his project.


Politically speaking there is no defined line [at Nuit Debout] but there is political coherence, although the debate is still open on, for instance, whether we should converge with trade unions – where some people don’t want to be part of old political games and some people would say we need to be with the workers.

There is belief within the social movements in France that we cannot reach a lot of people without some kind of convergence with the trade unions. But at the same time there’s also a real disbelief of what they’re going to do, at the end of the day. It’s not a matter of blindly following the trade unions or being totally against, it’s more a matter of tactics. My opinion is that when you have a movement that’s starting from scratch, you have to give it time. The trade unions are organised in their own specific way, so you need to give the movement the time to self-organise.

In France, or in northern Europe, there’s a belief that there is a clear magical link between the 15M [indignados] movement and Podemos, which is not the case – it’s much more complicated than that. Podemos have a political agenda, a way to change politics, but still from the top down and I think that’s the main difference between Podemos and the social movement: a horizontal, distributed DNA versus a new way of doing politics from a top-down perspective.

So there won’t be any political groups starting from the movement because the main election at the French level is the presidential election, and it will be in one year. The other thing is that possibly some already-organized politicians or political groups will be inspired – as was Podemos inspired or Syriza inspired – by the movements, and will take some elements of this DNA and put them into the political debate. But definitely it’s not possible that any political party can call themselves ‘Nuit Debout‘ at the election next year.

The ideal situation is to hack the system from the inside, allying ourselves with the kinds of MPs who say ‘I want to represent my people’s voice and then I’m off’ – we need this type of people. But we also need a strong social movement to confront and to question, because it’s all about democracy, to be able to question power. Otherwise, the system will trap you and will take all your energies. So the change should be deeper than simply creating a political party.

red pepper jun | jul 2016


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