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The Spirit of Occupy Lives on in France’s Emerging Direct Democracy Movement

Five years after popular uprisings and Occupy-style movements spread around the world, another movement is growing in France.

A discussion moderator at the Nuit Debout activist occupation in the Place de la Republique in Paris stands beside a visual guide to hand gestures for use in consensus-based decision-making. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

A specter is haunting France, and it is called direct democracy.

In 2011, throughout North Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe and the United States, there were similar occupations of public squares and calls for direct democracy. In reaction, there were multiple counterrevolutions, including military dictatorships and civil wars. There were also softer means of repression such as recuperation by political parties. The moment passed. Now, five years later, there is another moment beginning in France.

The Moment

(Photo: Marisa Holmes)Participants in the Nuit Debout occupation in Paris gather for a general assembly in the Place de la Republique. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

Throughout the last year, France experienced a turn toward the right. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo, and then again in the fall at the stadium and at popular nightlife destinations, created a climate of fear, and politicians of all established parties leveraged this fear for their own advantage, implementing anti-terrorism measures, including the state of emergency. Then, early this year, the Socialist Party backed a new work law, which would significantly change the labor code so as to encourage more precarious conditions.

People could have given into fear, but they didn’t. They began to fight back.

These increasingly repressive and exploitative measures by the state could have continued without opposition. People could have given into fear, but they didn’t. They began to fight back. All the major unions including the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) took to the streets in protest. Then, militants within the labor movement, autonomous organizers, high school students and refugee groups joined. In this context, after a march against the labor law on March 31, an occupation began at Place de la Republique. The occupation is called Nuit Debout, which means “(rise) up all night.”

In the center of the Place de la Republique, there is a monument with a statue of Marianne, the symbol of the republic, who holds an olive branch and a book inscribed with the “Rights of Man.” She has been adorned with a large banner, which reads, “Where is democracy?” This banner highlights the way in which the foundation of the French Republic — liberal democracy — is losing all legitimacy. People do not believe in it anymore. The conversation here is no longer about how to save liberal democracy, but how to replace it with direct democracy.

The Voice

(Photo: Marisa Holmes)Activists participate in an assembly in Saint-Denis, a working-class suburb (banlieue) to the north of Paris. The Saint-Denis occupation is part of Banlieues Debout, a network of assemblies that are discussing the ongoing racism and colonialism in France. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

On Monday evening at Place de la Republique, in Paris, people gathered to defend the space in which they have collectively been camping out, cooking food for each other and engaging in public discussions. The night before police came to clean and clear the park, removing all structures, but hundreds of people returned to the square. They were determined to continue the assembly despite being surrounded by police. The moderator stood up and explained that the police took their sound system.

People would not stand for this, and began chanting, “The sound system belongs to the people!” and a march began toward the police. Hundreds of people charged out of the assembly and surrounded the police vans, taking the sound system back.

Nuit Debout is a leaderless and spontaneous event. There is no one controlling it.

The sound system, the tool that amplifies the voices of those speaking, is perhaps the perfect symbol of what is happening in Place de la Republique. Every day hundreds and at times thousands of people gather to speak, whether in small group discussions, in the various commissions or in the assembly. There is a constant cacophony of conversations.

Nuit Debout is a leaderless and spontaneous event. There is no one controlling it. However, some of the most dedicated organizers of Nuit Debout can be found in the Commission for Moderation of the Assembly. In their meetings, there is an ongoing conversation about the meaning of democracy. The people involved are interested in experimenting with other forms of governance that are direct and participatory.

Every night the moderators convene the assembly, which is a body of individuals who engage in decision-making for Nuit Debout. There are also stack takers (discussion facilitators who keep track of people interested in talking next) and people in charge of security who are trained in de-escalation. The first hour or so consists of reports back from the various commissions in charge of coordinating food and shelter for the people living in the encampment, as well as reports from the commissions focused on political action, media, education and any other basic needs of the occupation in the square. Then, typically, there’s some sort of musical break with songs of resistance and celebration, before moving into the debate portion of the evening.

The people involved are interested in experimenting with other forms of governance that are direct and participatory.

There is no predetermined agenda for the assembly. People who are there on a given night decide what to discuss. The decision-making process itself is a hybrid of consensus and voting. People take turns speaking, and then members of the crowd wave their fingers and shout to make their feelings known. If an individual or a commission comes with a proposal, then there is a poll taken to get the feeling of the group. Then, the moderator asks the assembly to vote. If there is a majority, then a proposal passes.

The most heated topics have been around the use of violence and nonviolence, speaking to the media and representation. Thus far, the assembly has decided to support a diversity of tactics but to encourage nonviolence, to affirm that no one speaks for the movement (individuals speak only for themselves) and to oppose the formation of political parties.

Beyond the Square

(Photo: Marisa Holmes)Nuit Debout participants use standardized group decision-making gestures during a general assembly in Saint-Denis, a working-class community to the north of Paris. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

There are many groups that meet at Place de la Republique and attempt to build bridges with other struggles beyond the square itself. There is now, for instance, a general strike committee that is building a network of militant labor organizers and rank and file. There are various youth and student groups. There are refugee groups. There is also Banlieues Debout, a network of new neighborhood assemblies that are discussing the need to address the ongoing racism and colonialism in France. On Wednesdaynight, there was an assembly in the square of Saint-Denis. Community members and militants organized tents, food and a child care station.

An assembly began using the same hybrid system of consensus and voting used at Place de la Republique. The majority of speakers were sans papiers (without immigration papers). One by one they spoke of their experiences with precarious work conditions and how the work law affected them. Several women domestic workers spoke. Students and artists spoke in solidarity. Everyone called for a general strike and for more assemblies.

In addition to the Banlieues assemblies, there are other occupations of squares and assemblies happening in cities such as in Nantes, Rennes and Lyon. The whole of the country is rising up.

Beyond France

(Photo: Marisa Holmes)Nuit Debout activists gather at a makeshift library erected as part of the activist occupation in the Place de la Republique in Paris. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

In the background of what’s happening in France, the publication of the Panama Papers has revealed, yet again, the widespread corruption of government officials, and the collusion with business interests to further capitalist exploitation. In France, there was already widespread dissatisfaction with French President François Hollande, and the Socialist Party, but the context of the papers heightened this dissatisfaction. In Iceland, the prime minister has already resigned. In England, there are calls for Prime Minister David Cameron to resign.

The moment is bigger than France, and bigger than Nuit Debout.

However, Nuit Debout is symbolic of the desire for change in politics. There are groups inspired by Nuit Debout in Belgium, Spain, Germany, the UK and Quebec, Canada.

Global Revolution

(Photo: Marisa Holmes)A volunteer-run medic station at the Place de la Republique offers care to participants in the Nuit Debout occupation. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

In 2011, there was a similar global moment. People had a glimpse at some horizon of possibility, but the political project of direct democracy was not fully realized. Perhaps the Place de la Republique is just one square in a long series of experiments in this project, from the Kasbah in Tunis to Tahrir Square in Cairo, to Syntagma Square in Athens, Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Zuccotti Park in New York City, and many more.

With each experiment lessons are learned, but they need to be shared. This work will not be easy. There will be repression. However, it must be done. It is time now to face the specter of 2011 and build a global movement for direct democracy.

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