Nuit Debout: This Revolution Is Not for You

A banner displayed at Nuit debout at Place de la République in Paris. | KELLY COGSWELL

A banner displayed at Nuit debout at Place de la République in Paris. | KELLY COGSWELL

Revolutions don’t excite me any more. They’re never for me. Not Occupy Wall Street. Not the new social movement going on in France right now, called “Nuit debout” and centered 15 or 20 long blocks from me at Place de la République.

It began on March 31 following a series of protests against proposed government changes to the labor laws that might or might not make things worse for workers. What’s sure is that France has a high unemployment rate, and young kids are already so worried about retirement that associations of high school students joined labor unions as the prime organizers in these enormous demos. I saw the student leaders, and was excited that some were young women.

These protests exploded into a movement that seemed spontaneous at first, but was triggered in part by François Ruffin, a journalist releasing a Michael Moore-like film, and other activists. They reportedly decided to piggyback on the March 31 demo, by refusing to leave the plaza afterwards and encouraging others to stay with them. Their goal: to unify several social movements focused on protecting labor rights and challenging income inequality.

It worked spectacularly well. Ruffin’s film is a hit. And, “Nuit debout” (“Up All Night,” or “Standing Night “) has become a more general movement frequently compared to Occupy Wall Street.

Perspective: A Dyke Abroad

After weeks of encampment, the activists reached a détente with the authorities, settling into a rhythm where they only gather on the weekends and after work until midnight or 1 a.m. If you pass by, you’ll see tents and tables and small working groups. Other times, there are big general assembly meetings with lots of speakers. In terms of gender, the overwhelmingly white crowd seems reasonably mixed, but when it comes to speakers it’s mostly men. The men talk a lot— about equality, horizontality, and intersectionality, drawing connections between civil liberties and income, police reform, immigration, Palestine, the environment, questions of race, women, queers.

Probably, if I stayed, I’d even agree with a lot of what they say. But form matters, too, and at Nuit debout, men hog the podium in general assemblies and grandstand in working groups. Not only do more men speak, they speak much longer than women. And when women finally do get a word in, they are repeatedly, frequently, inevitably interrupted.

The feminist group there proposed that they partly solve the problem by alternating genders on the list of speakers, but the crowd determined that there weren’t enough female speakers to justify such a move. And never once thought it useful to ask why.

The group, Commission on Feminisms, has also been trying to hold regular women-only meetings to encourage more women to articulate their issues, at least in a smaller protected space. But men, who often self-identify as feminist, come to harass and harangue them, inspiring one of my friends to joke that they’d finally figured out how to interest men in what women have to say.

These “feminist” men have also used the open, mixed feminist meetings to rage against women-only meetings being held in a public space like the Place de la République, in a public movement of citizens like Nuit debout. So what if women can’t fully participate in this public movement, or even stand safely in the public plaza?

Sexual harassment there is not uncommon. There have even been sexual assaults. I read one blog post describing how when some women tried to talk about their experiences right there at Nuit debout (just like Occupy Wall Street!), some man shouted he’d never seen such a thing. And when the women responded rudely, the man’s feelings got hurt and the group had to process that. Because his feelings, of course, were the point.

Nevertheless, it was a woman,

, a 53-year old cleaning lady and far-left militant, who apparently has prodded Nuit debout to recognize their lack of diversity on the racial front. In response, Parisian activists created a sort of outreach committee. In the city of Marseille, they went further, organizing an event Saturday in the cité des Flamants, a housing project outside of town.

Almost nobody went except journalists, including one from Le Monde, who reported that instead of a tickertape parade, they got a critique from one local activist, Fatima Mostefaoui. “Here, we’ve been standing and awake for 30 years,” she told them. “Nobody here was waiting for you to fight poverty, police violence, social injustice… You came here to give us a voice? We’ve had a voice. It’s just that nobody’s listening because everything we say is censored and stigmatized.”

Afterwards, one young man told Le Monde that they’d picked the wrong place. “I’m not sure I’d try again.”

Me neither. Even though the men of the left have increasingly mastered the language of change, they themselves haven’t budged. They don’t listen, can’t stand any voice but their own. Without women, without poor people, people of color, oh yes and queers, the end result can only be more of the same.