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The U.S. Has Bernie, but We, in France, Have Some Serious Protestors

The presidential election in the U.S. has dominated the public's attention and produced two unlikely outcomes. The most obvious is that reality TV star Donald Trump, while breaking every rule in the book of U.S. presidential politics and offending women, minorities and just about everyone, is clearly going to be the Republican nominee for president.


The second outcome is that an avowed democratic socialist has almost kept pace with Hillary Clinton, the favorite to get the Democratic nomination. Bernie Sanders has won a string of races down the homestretch, and he keeps pushing the envelope, fighting and spending millions on advertising, even though his chances of winning the nomination are almost nil.

The success of a more radical candidate like Sanders makes progressives in America feel encouraged. And yet, despite several notable Black Lives Matters protests over racist police brutality, there has been very little protest in America about the overall economic climate; mostly a lot of voter enthusiasm for Bernie, as many "feel the Bern."

In France, it is very different. France is a far more rebellious country than the United States. People march in the streets and go on strike for the smallest reasons. But this time, there is evidence of a major revolt as hundreds of thousands of people have been protesting against a new labor law for weeks. High school and university students were the first to join the protest, to block their schools and to demand the withdrawal of the law, quickly joined by trade unions, and by the youth, in general. The grassroots movement called Nuit Debout ("Night on Our Feet") has been protesting virtually nonstop.

With unemployment high in France, the nominally Socialist government of François Hollande has aggressively pushed through a new law, which makes France's labor laws more flexible, in the hope that it can reduce the 10 percent unemployment rate. In the face of hostility Hollande has chosen to bypass a vote in the National Assembly using a rarely used executive power, which has sparked the most recent of a series of massive protests. In the meantime, Hollande has been unsuccessful overall in gaining consensus on the labor plan, failing to unite the Socialists in his own party, which the conservatives are strongly against as well. The result is that Hollande has been weakened politically. Polls suggest that he might not make it though the first round of voting in next year's presidential race.

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Photo credit: Clo Bigot

The labor law, or El Khomri law (named after the labor minister), will:

  • increase the maximum workday from 10 to 12 hours
  • let overtime pay to be negotiated only up to 10 percent higher, instead of an average of 40 percent
  • allow individual companies to negotiate hours worked, holidays, special bonuses, etc., instead of those decisions being made for whole sectors

The Protests

The first protest started on March 9, when  around 300,000 people marched on the streets in many major French cities. Then protests got bigger, and on March 31, about 700,000 people took to the streets.

But March 31 has changed it all. After the protest, hundreds gathered in the square at Place de la République and decided to stay there for the night. Behind slogans like “we’re not going home,” they created the “Nuit Debout” (night upstanding) phenomenon. Every afternoon at 6pm a general assembly would determine ways to fight and how to continue the movement. Hundreds of people would gather every night, and commissions were created to find different ways of changing society. A feminist women-only commission was created; others were in charge of the organization of Nuit Debout and its regulation, and others were in support of refugees or for animal protection.

The organization of the movement was based on global decisions. Every day a theme was chosen, and each person had two minutes in order to talk to the assembly. Former Greek finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis came, and the assembly voted on his speaking time. Five minutes were granted. No more.

Even though many thought the phenomenon was going to lose strength, it continued, and still continues today. It even got national attention. Many other Nuit Debout started in other cities of France, and even with the French expatriates of Berlin.

But still. Every weekend, things got dirty. Roads were blocked, fires were set to stop the cars, and police teargassed the last people on the square. After the settlement of Nuit Debout, protests continued. Each of them had anarchist groups at front that would rip cobblestones off the streets to throw them at police officers, who would then throw teargas and flashball, as well as stun grenades. Many protesters as well as journalists were wounded during these protests, which made everyone more determined to fight.

On May 1, an international labor holiday, many protesters were taken into custody for the next two days, and many were wounded. The violence had been taken to another level, yet again. The last protest on May 12 was supposed to go from Place Denfert-Rochereau in the south of Paris to the National Assembly, where the bill was being passed in a 49-3 vote. About 12,000 people marched in Paris, which is fewer than the previous protests. Why? Students had exams, and many workers felt like it wasn’t worth losing a payday to a law that had already passed.

As usual, the march started at 2pm. The security forces (CRS) blocked all the nearby streets; subway and bus stops were closed and bags were checked before exiting the subway. Hundreds of police officers were prepared. They expected the worst, and the worst happened. Dozens of young men, masked and gloved, threw what they could get their hands on: glass bottles found by tipping a bin over, cobblestones ripped out from the ground, even Molotov cocktails, which almost set fire to a police truck, creating panic.

All these clashes took place in one of the poshest Parisian neighborhoods, home to a wealthy population, generally older, who did not understand what was happening to their streets, normally so quiet.

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Photo credit: Clo Bigot

These anarchist groups are for the most part led by very young men, who are aggressive and are used to clashes with the police. They yell slogans like “Everybody hates the police” a few meters away from the police, and they kick back the teargas thrown at them. Everything changes in a matter of seconds. Some young protesters throw objects at the police, who then fire teargas to disperse the protesters, and 10 minutes later, once the teargas loses its effect, other objects are thrown, and it all starts again.

Even though fewer workers go to the protests, more anarchist groups do. So the protests get more and more violent, for not only police officers, but also peaceful protesters and journalists.

On May 17, at the start of a week of more protesting, many were wounded. Some journalists were forced to stop filming, to remove their protection goggles and gas masks.

An Exaggerated Use of Legitimate Violence

Why are protests so violent? What pushes these young men and women to break everything they can and throw objects at police officers? Why do police officers respond with such violence?

Many young people have the impression the State doesn’t listen to them when violence isn’t used. They think they have no other option. More and more young people have radicalized during the last protests, as an answer to the increased use of violence by police forces.

Police officers and CRS have been using not only teargas, but also flashballs, a rubber ball shot at more than 150 miles an hour, shooting directly at people’s faces (one protester lost an eye a few weeks back) and arresting dozens of people. Facing police forces, protesters know they cannot come with their children, and have to bring physiological serum, gas masks and goggles, because everybody knows it’s going to get ugly.

Police officers, since the Paris attacks of November 13, have been under constant pressure, working sometimes 50 hours a week, and are therefore more aggressive. Each side has been getting tougher: protesters against police violence, and police officers against anarchist violence.

For now, the Nuit Debout phenomenon continues, demanding a new form of society. Many more protests are to come in spite of police violence and a deaf government, which refuses to listen to the people on the street. “The fight continues,” as these protesters would say, with many more violent protests to come.

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Photo credit: Clo Bigot

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