French 'Stay Up All Night' Movement Gathers Momentum to Challenge Economic Status Quo

Posted April 20, 2016

MP3 Interview with Sonali Kolhatkar, author, columnist, host and creator of KPFK Radio's 'Rising Up with Sonali' program, conducted by Scott Harris

upallnight

The nation of France has a rich tradition of activism, where in the name of social solidarity, many citizens feel obligated to take a stand on social justice issues from opposition to war, to human rights and labor strikes. It was in that tradition that thousands of students, trade unionists and progressive activists launched spirited protests across France on March 31 in opposition to Socialist President Francois Hollande's proposal to weaken the country's protective labor laws that unions assert favor business at the expense of workers.

But the protests have transformed into a new movement across France and beyond, known as "Nuit Debout" or "Up All Night." Each evening since March 31, activists have gathered at Paris's Place de la République to debate and protest against a diverse list of grievances, from immigrant rights to economic inequality and youth unemployment, which stands at 24 percent. Although there have been clashes with police and some violence, the movement appears to continue to gather momentum and has now spread to Belgium, Germany and Spain.

Up All Night, which has attracted thousands of supporters, has been compared by many to the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement, the Indignados uprising in Spain and even Paris' own student-worker protests and strikes, which paralyzed France in May 1968. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with author and columnist Sonali Kolhatkar, host and creator of KPFK Radio's "Rising Up with Sonali" program in Los Angeles. Here, she discusses France's Up All Night movement and its challenge to the nation's economic status quo. [Rush transcript.]

SONALI KOLHATKAR: I went to France for the first time last December for the COP21 protests and France is an amazing country. People are very politically active; they're very politically aware, particularly of their labor rights. People have worked very hard over the years to preserve strong labor rights. It's routine in Paris for the entire city to shut down and go on a general strike because there's some union that's upset about some attack on it. So, basically what's happened is that the French president, socialist President Francois Hollande, you would imagine that as a social president, he would be more friendly to workers' rights. But, he's been basically unrolling a neoliberal agenda in France, and little by little, chipping away at the rights of workers and so he unveiled labor reform that he has proposed that would essentially make it easier for employers to fire workers. It's very difficult in France to fire somebody, whether you're in a union or not, and most people are. And he basically said this would make it easier to hire people, that it would be really good for the economy and for workers.

But workers weren't buying it. People were very upset. And what happened was on March 31, a number of people gathered at the Place de la Republique, which is a very symbolic place in Paris. It has a national monument. It became a site of a mourning of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January and the victims of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks. So people gathered there to watch a film called, "Merci, Patron" which essentially means "Thanks, Boss!" and it's a film about ordinary French people being threatened by a corporation and being screwed over a corporation. And apparently, what happened on the night of March 31 was that film riled people up so much, they were so angry about the proposed labor reforms and the film kind of inspired them to do more, and they decided to stay in the Place de la Republique. And thus was born the so-called Nuit deBout, or "Up All Night" or "Riseup at Night" movement. So people stayed in the Place de la Republique. It got bigger and bigger. More people came, they stayed overnight, they had Occupy Wall Street-style General Assembly meetings and continue to have them.

And they basically decided, we're going to draw the line here in the sand against these reforms, but also this is sort of a broader you know, kind of just "say no" to austerity programs, to pro-corporate anti-worker programs. And they have been there since March 31.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Sonali, what is the unifying cry here in terms of the organizing going in France and across borders in Europe. Is it anti-austerity, or is it something larger than just fighting back against policies in France and these other countries that are asking more from workers in terms of givebacks and such?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: My understanding is that essentially this about strengthening democracy, people are angry that things that are popular policy – that are popular – are not being pushed by the government. People are angry that their elected representatives continue to kowtow to corporate forces. Of course, sure in the United States, we're very familiar, this is a long-standing tradition in our political landscape. But in France, it's becoming worse and worse and they're not as used to it as we are and they are understandably and justifiably very angry, and so the broader aspect of this is strengthening democracy. The narrow issue is the opposition's that propose labor reform. But by and large now, this is becoming a sort of pro-democracy movement: How do we strengthen democracy? How do we revise our democracy? How do we wrench it away from corporate control and back into the hands of ordinary people?

And so people are having discussions. Now, of course, the downside of these large spontaneous mass uprisings or gatherings is that they are often leaderless and often they may be a little inarticulate because of course, the nature of these gatherings is that no single voice rises above all else. There's a lot back and forth. A lot of group discussions, mass group discussion and so you can take one impression away from it – which is what the mass media usually does – which is that these groups don't know what they want. We heard this criticism about Occupy Wall Street. They didn't have clear demands and that's true of Nuit deBout as well in Paris.

But the upside of that is that people are getting that feeling just like Americans did during Occupy Wall Street, that they have the power to take back democracy. That if they physically occupy a space, it makes them feel empowered and gives them the confidence to demand even more. Interestingly enough, the former Finance Minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, recently visited the heart of the Nuit Duboit protests in Paris in France. The epicenter is the Place de la Republique and he was the anti-austerity hero of Greece last year, and when he was finance minister with the Syriza party, the left-leaning anti-austerity party, he had just written a new book, and he felt it was important enough to go to Paris and be at this gathering because he also understands that this is also an affirmation of democracy and a rejection of austerity and essentially, pro-corporate policies.

Visit the Rising up with Sonali radio show at risingupwithsonali.com and learn more about Sonali Kolhatkar at sonalikolhatkar.com

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