…May ’68, Nuit Debout and Romanticizing Struggles
by Jade Ascencio
In 2016, the Nuit Debout movement in Paris installed its headquarters only two stops away from my place. Every night people gathered on the Place de la République, discussing all sorts of issues, making art, with the ultimate aim of launching France’s Sixth Republic. Feminist and ecologist reflection groups sat side-by-side with anti-advertisement workshops geared towards direct action. People of diverse background talked to each other, students and homeless people gathered around the free canteen, trying to reimagine our country. The movement flooded the internet with manifestos, pictures, chatrooms, videos, analysis of the news, and guidelines for occupying buildings or creating local currencies to facilitate barter networks. Week after week, the movement extended to more French cities, and even abroad: according to the official website, it even reached Panama and Russia, while most of the countries in western Europe had several cities involved.
However, as much as I wanted to be, I wasn’t excited about it. The movement was originally contesting the changes to France’s labour laws – the government was then working on simplifying and flexibilising (pardon the neologism) these laws, which many of us saw as a threat to both workers’ rights and our redistributive system. Resistance to these changes had given rise to Nuit Debout, but the movement did not seem like an appropriate answer. To me this happy, after-dark gathering that was all over the media seemed vain, selfish and disconnected from the real struggles.
Vain, selfish, and disconnected. I don’t know if Nuit Debout was those things, but the working laws it sought to defend were modified anyway. None of the texts produced by Nuit Debout has been used so far to transform our constitution, our political system, or our society’s vision of representative democracy. The media walked away, and by the end of the summer of 2016, the Place de la République reverted to its usual form. There’s a coffee shop where the movement once gathered, with outside tables where tourists can have a drink facing the big statue – an allegory of Freedom.
Vain, selfish, and disconnected. A lot of noise for nothing. There’s a precedent here, in my imagination: and it’s May ‘68.
Vain, because it didn’t make significant changes, selfish because it didn’t claim rights for those who needed it, disconnected because there were fights to be fought in the 1960s, and the ’68 movement didn’t accomplish that. It is true as well that the two movements bear aesthetic resemblances. I’m thinking especially of the Nuit Debout’s motto Rêve Générale (General Dream), which combines dreams and strikes in a clever pun. This evokes to me the image of a bored youth, mostly interested in making poetry, confusing their masturbatory intellectual experiment for a political struggle. But this is when I stop and think.
You don’t get hundreds of students in the streets with no claims to make.
You don’t get the universities to close when nothing’s going on.
You don’t get the police beating up teenagers for no reason.
There must have been something.
Then why do I think that it was meaningless?
I asked around, and I’m not the only one who sees it this way. People my age have in mind the images of the protests, the enthusiasm for Maoism, the mini-skirts and the red cigarettes, the barricades, the south bank of Paris. The slogans: ‘Il est interdit d’interdire’ (it is forbidden to forbid), ‘sous les paves la plage’ (under the pavement the beach), ‘Sois jeune et tais-toi’ (be young and keep quiet). They’re on postcards and t-shirts and to be honest they’re all pretty cool. But so many of us today have no clue about what those people wanted. A friend of mine said: ‘I thought May ‘68 started because the students wanted mixed dorms’. Could it have just been that?
And I think it is necessary to explore what May ’68 meant then and what it means now to shed a new light on the Nuit Debout movement, so bear with me for a moment.
In 1968, France was still under the shock of the Algerian war of independence, which caused a strong divide in the French society. The population was increasingly critical of President De Gaulle’s methods, which include the frequent use of the referendum and the bypassing of the Parliament to establish new political measures. Although French radio and television were still managed by a state monopoly, criticism against president De Gaulle was palpable in a number of alternative publications circulated in factories and universities. And in this golden era of economic growth, unemployment began rising steadily for the first time. The 1960s in France was characterised by workers’ strikes caused by decline in real wages, the degradation of working conditions in the mining industry, and a new version of Social Security which gave more power to the employer’s union. At the forefront of those struggles, the communist party was torn between its Stalinist and Maoist members. The left was looking outside of France: political mobilisation in Latin America generated a lot of enthusiasm, and the youth was outraged by the violence of the Vietnam War. In the book, May ’68 and its Afterlives, author Kristin Ross (2002) argues that rebuilding the link between this larger context and the events of May ’68 per se is key to retrieving the movement’s political content.
It’s not the easiest thing to make sense of May ’68: the strikes and demonstrations were many, so were the groups behind them, and retrospectively it is hard to tell whether or how they were working together. Archives of the working class uprisings do not show a direct link with the students’ movement; for instance, the workers occupying the Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt did not let the students in with them, and thought of their movements as merely parallel. However, as Ross documents in May ’68 and its Afterlives, the pamphlets and newspapers issued by the students linked their actions to the larger economic and social situation of the times. The revolutionary newspaper, Action, says about the students banned from the University in March:
‘Their only crime is to refuse a university that has only one goal: form the bosses of tomorrow, and the docile instruments of the economy. Their only crime is to refuse an authoritarian and hierarchical social system which refuses all radical opposition: it is to refuse to be the servants of this system’.
Most of the pamphlets mentioned the workers’ strikes, and called for solidarity between the movements, which was justified by common features such as the police brutality displayed against them, and a class analysis of French society. The distance between the livelihoods of the middle-class, having access to university, and that of the rural and industrial workers was immense at the time – I would recommend reading Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novels to get an idea of this gap. Her return from the University to visit her modest parents resembles a journey into the past, towards intense economic hardship, illiteracy, and a worldview that seemed incongruous in the 1960s. On the other hand, many of her fellow students don’t seem to understand Ernaux’s background either. She gives a personal but nonetheless sociological account of what it meant to negotiate feelings, sexuality, and thought between these two worlds. This opens a window onto the French condition at the time, and the larger economic context that shaped the political consciousness of the students.
Kristin Ross explains that the students saw the university as part of a larger problem and hoped to create solidarity across social boundaries. She paraphrases Saïd:
‘all of the symbolic accoutrements of early May – the pseudo-insurrectional demonstrations, the forests of black flags, the barricades, the campus occupations – all these transpositions inspired by worker’s traditions, should be understood as a semantic ensemble, a language by which the student movement sought to address itself to workers over the heads of bureaucratic leaders’ (p.107).
Kristin Ross argues that the students were to some extent heard by the workers. She states: ‘it is easy to forget the extent to which the streets, from early May on, were already mixed. As the street battles progressed, students were joined by more and more young workers, stifled by the protocol of the unions, and by unemployed workers’ (p.71). Students and workers were maybe not part of one unified movement with clear common goals, but they did not act in isolation, to say the least.
It is significant that the uprising started at the University of Nanterre, in the outskirts of Paris: the windows of the student housing buildings looked directly onto a slum, in which many Algerian and Portugese immigrants lived. This part of the French population was not left out of the students’ class analysis, their publications, and their claims. One of the pamphlets published by students, entitled Three continents, same struggle, a new world, demanded that immigrant workers have the same economic and political rights than the rest of the French population. These workers were seen to be oppressed both as part of the ‘Third World’ and as factory workers. The pamphlet states: ‘the dominant contradiction of the global capitalist system is at the level of imperialism and neo-colonialism’, and it went on to discuss uprisings in Asia, Africa and Latin America. I have no idea of the extent of the communication that existed between students in Senegal, Istanbul and Paris, but the May ’68 movement saw itself as part of a larger world-transformation, driven by a global analysis of the capitalist mode of production, and a critique of imperialism. If anything, the refusal to take France as its unit of analysis is in the genes of May ’68. The memories of the massacre of the metro Charonne in 1962 were still vivid at the time: pacifist white French people were violently repressed by the police for demonstrating against the state’s actions in the Algerian war. Kristin Ross notes that at the time, the nine French dead of Charonne seemed to have shocked France way more than the thousands of victims of the Algerian war: French citizens realised it was not enough to be white and middle class to escape police violence, even in times of ‘peace’ and prosperity. These events made the police the enemy of French people and colonised people alike. Maybe this shifted the social imagination of the French youth towards international solidarity and a critique of the state.
May ’68 denounced the politics of De Gaulle, and with it a certain vision of France. It criticised capitalism and integrated the importance of class struggles, while trying to think beyond classes. It attempted to create solidarity across identities, across countries, and to a certain extent across genders. It was anarchist, and syndicalist, and maoïst – and within that it took upon the maoïsm of Mao, but also that of Sartre, and even Foucault. And insofar as the students are concerned, it was a movement that reflected on itself – and asked about the role of university, of sociology, of their own discourse and knowledge. The multiplicity of the actors and discourses, within a rather general refusal to create a centralised organisation means that there are many May ‘68s – that it was not in a sense a single, coherent event.
Writing this I think back on the slogans, the images, and the movies linked to this period – and Kristin Ross’ understanding of the May ’68 movement sheds a new light on them. L’An 01, for instance, which describes an absurd revolution in which all characters ‘take as step on the side’, thereby refusing to be where they’re supposed to be, finding themselves literally entering their neighbour’s place instead of theirs, going to someone else’s job, trading identity cards with strangers… Or Godard’s La Chinoise, which doesn’t really have a story line, and in which characters discuss politics by playing with words and marionettes. Lots of laughs in both those movies, lots of playfulness. Now, I would tend to think that they are literal performances of what it means to think outside the box, to become someone else, to use language rather than let it use us. Maybe May ‘68 needed to create such a strong aesthetic insofar as it was refusing existing systems of categorisation, identities, and knowledge. This is different than simply resisting – it implies the creation of a new worldview through playfulness and a specific imagery, new tools for new politics.
Kristin Ross’ narrative invalidates the idea that May ’68 was mostly a ‘family or generational drama, stripped of any violence, asperity, or overt political dimensions – a benign transformation of customs and lifestyles that necessarily accompanied France’s modernisation from an authoritarian bourgeois state to a new, liberal, modern financier bourgeoisie’ (Ross, p.5-6). Not only this mainstream view of May ’68 disconnected the uprising from its context, but it had further consequences, making it even harder for my generation to reclaim this event. Stripped from its political content, May ‘68 and its aesthetics became a brand – nothing new here, just think of the face of Che Guevara printed on an army of t-shirts. You can buy May ’68 original posters on ebay for hundred of euros, and reproductions for less than ten. And as I’m writing this – it’s too good to be true but I swear it is – I am wearing a long black coat, very much like the ones French students in the 60s used to wear: on the buttons you can read ‘Esprit Mai 68’. How ironic. If anything, this use of May ‘68 as a commodity in turn reinforces images of May ‘68 as part of the transition of France into the current neoliberal era – it further associates this event with consumption and with the individual, while its protagonists were discussing production and politics.
Now back to Nuit Debout. It emerged from a rather difficult context: after the terrorist attacks of November 2015, a state of emergency was declared, giving exceptional rights to the police. Amnesty International denounced abuses of these rights between November 2015 and May 2017: notably, an abuse of the measures preventing people from organising or joining demonstrations, the unlawful arrest of protesters, and disproportionate police violence in the context of crowd management. It was an uneasy moment for the left: finally in power it found itself acting in the direct line of the previous government, increasing coercive measures and liberalising the economy. While another section of the left was in the streets getting beat up by the cops during demonstrations for the preservation of our redistributive social system and working rights. During the five months in which the text was being revised for adoption, there were fourteen national days of strike and demonstrations – and many other local demonstrations organised. In the end, the text was voted by using the section 49.3 of the constitution which allows for the use of a process by which if a text is not fully rejected by the Parliament in 24 hours, then it is accepted as it is, without a possibility for the Parliament to amend details. Nuit Debout arose from the frustration of a part of the left that felt betrayed and wanted to do more than simply demonstrating, as the multiplication of demonstrations did not seem to be taken in consideration by the government when crafting the text.
This context bears similarities with that of May ‘68: economic hardship, a government using methods perceived to be anti-democratic, and a decade’s worth of demonstrations that did not lead to much change. And just like May ‘68, Nuit Debout was brought together by people who envisioned the events that form the 2016 French context as part of a larger problem. Issues of global warming, refugee crisis, and tax evasion were brought back into the picture, next to a class analysis of the French political context. The movement was deeply inspired by the documentary Merci Patron (Thanks Boss) which denounces the unequal position of workers vis-à-vis bosses in negotiating rights. This movie was directed by the team of journalists behind Fakir, a publication that has been engaged in showing the complicity of the political class in reproducing inequalities and threatening the redistributive system – and analysing news from that perspective. Nuit Debout was therefore first imagined as a space where struggles from all over France and further afield could join and act against a common enemy – which was not allowed by the limited scope of the claims made in the demonstrations organised by the unions. The first ever reunion of Nuit Debout started with a speech entitled ‘To scare them’.
This idea made sense to me at the time, but what it came to resemble in practice did not. Rather than developing tools to fight this ‘enemy’, it felt like those who joined the Nuit Debout movement were mostly arguing about how to come together – how to find new debating and voting techniques, how to satisfy anarchists and communists and syndicalists and students and feminists and breadwinners and entrepreneurs, taking part in night-long debates and proving unable to focus the movement on any given action. It felt like the potential of the movement was wasted on the production of slogans and endless street interviews of participants talking about Nuit Debout, some interesting but not ground-breaking direct actions…and not much more. Frédéric Lordon, an economist and philosopher and major figure of the movement wrote: ‘Nous ne revendiquons rien’ (we do not reclaim anything) – and it is only after having read about May ‘68 that I can understand what he meant: in the end the goal of Nuit Debout was not so much to unite against an establishment, but to unite for the production of alternatives, initiatives, and a rethinking of political processes.
Nuit Debout in that sense was right to invoke the culture of May ’68. The quest for politics beyond classes and frontiers and the rejection of established hierarchies is common to both movements – and with it specific non-traditional forms of speech and action. As it shows from both examples, such struggles need experimentation, playfulness, and probably lots of time. I’m unsure as to whether there is a category out there to describe such initiatives. They entail the refusal to think issues separately when they are linked to the same patterns of domination, the urge to extend the struggle beyond the community, a refusal to reproduce hierarchies within its own organisation, and they are geared towards producing new modes of political organisation rather than discussing with existing institutions. This is the sort of initiative that is supposed to make ‘them’ so afraid – revolution rather than reform – and the refusal to reproduce within the movements the issues that characterise the rest of society. Problem is, such coming together not an easy thing to do, and it is not a fast process. Probably, as well, slogans and a certain aesthetic universe can help people gather and feel like they are doing the same thing – which works well for both May ‘68 and Nuit Debout: slogans evoke the making of another world, ‘Demain commence ici’ (tomorrow starts here), and the refusal of this one. They celebrate a ‘we’ against a ‘them’. These messages of community and hope are probably a good base to start arguing about what to do next.
‘To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’ (Walter Benjamin). I don’t know if it’s possible to prove Benjamin’s statement, but I guess to some extent the material reunited in this post is there to try and make sense of it. I am a young left-wing French ciswoman who knows how to recognise the aesthetics of May ‘68 – even though I didn’t always know why this aesthetics mattered – and it does feel like a glimpse of that past has been putting a shadow over my present. I associated Nuit Debout with a trend, something that wasn’t going to last and that would become a depoliticised memory. I was afraid that once in my fifties, I would end up saying with a contented smile ‘I was there, at the Place de la République, in 2016’, as a positive marker of my identity – but such movements arise to change the status quo for the whole community, not to participate to the romanticized memories of one’s youth.
Now I am afraid that this means that capitalism’s ability to reduce a whole political imagination to something marketable effectively shuts possibilities for change. If playful and creative struggles contain the genealogy of previous occurrences and their recuperation, then people may find it more satisfying to act within struggles that are less likely to be recuperated in the same fashion. In a French context this corresponds to large demonstrations organised by unions and geared towards single issues – instead of understanding social issues as part of the same whole. Reducing political action to these more classical uprisings effectively prevents people from uniting through different struggles – workers, unemployed people, refugees, victims social and environmental dumping around the world… – when it might be the right thing to do.
Jade Ascencio is a studying for an MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK.