President Hollande is facing an uprising in France by a group of young dissidents whose dissatisfaction with the present administration is beginning to surface in various cities in France. As usual, it started in Paris and seems to gain momentum all over the country and beyond. It has become the French equivalents of Occupy Wall Street, or Madrid’s anti-austerity Indignados – a sprawling, anarchic left-wing gathering that is a magnet for popular discontent and a festive counterculture.
In Paris, beer cans littered the ground, the smell of cannabis hung in the air. House music blared out and the talk was of a revolt to bring about a new society. At sunset more than 2,000 protestors had assembled for the 22nd consecutive night in a movement that’s being compared with celebrated French revolts of the past.
Nuit Debout (Night-up), as the sit-in is being referred to, began as a protest against President Hollande’s plan to reform labour laws to lengthen France’s 35-hour working week and to make it easier for companies to lay off staff. It has turned into something much wider and more alarming for the president than he anticipated. Nuit Debout does lack leadership and appears simply a motley of disillusioned people with no organizational structure and only the vaguest of aims – just to make the world a better place. It has perhaps, contrary to expectations, caught on to the extent that there are now similar protests in dozens of other cities.
France, as its history asserts, is a country with a long experience of public disorder and is noted for violent upheavals that risk bloodshed. So far, the violence has been contained and limited to a few dozen protestors clashing with the police in Paris, Nantes and Lyon. Yet officials fear that the cocktail of drugs, alcohol, and anger at France’s discredited political class could eventually produce an explosion of the sort that has marked France’s past history.
The movement’s base is the Place de la Republique, the central Parisian square that is now taken over every night by crowds, consisting of earnest utopians mixing with night clubbers looking to dance free of charge. As midnight approached last Thursday, hundreds of people swayed to the thud of house music from speakers perched on a trolley – the notes mingling strangely with jazz played by a band that had also turned up.
In the vicinity, two fire eaters breathed flames into the night sky as their audience downed beers sold by hawkers for euros2.50, or rolled joints. On the other side of the square the mood was different as politically motivated participants watched a cartoon that featured a great Ronald Macdonald shooting dead the Michelin Man at the collapse of capitalism. Dozens more took part in debates.
A feminist group listened to a woman film technician talk of the difficulties of working with an otherwise all male crew. Its members waved their hands in the air in approval, clapping having been discarded in the search for new forms of social communication.
A few metres away a grey haired man was explaining that contemporary politicians had become the servants of ‘a fierce religion’ – everyone appeared to have understood him to mean the market economy controlled by a financial aristocracy.
Fred, a 49 year-old musician, was looking after a stand called ‘Citizens Jury Commission’. He said that he has spent the previous 10 nights promoting a move towards direct democracy that would involve handing the decision-making powers held by elected representatives to juries made up of citizens selected at random as in crown courts. ‘I am here because I’m fed up with voting for the least bad candidate in every election,’ he said. ‘It’s possible to do something to improve democracy.’
Jules Ragueneau, 25, a Parisian receptionist who is also present every night, played down comparisons with the French revolutionaries of the 18th century. ‘We are not going to cut off Francois Hollande’s head,’ he said. ‘Although a lot of people would like to do that, it’s not our aim. This is a revolution to the extent that we are trying to reinvent society.’
Whenever a movement to reinvent society takes root it ends up, in my view, being overrun by extremists who use violence to achieve their goal. What’s happening in France today could lead to a serious debacle of democracy and the political system marred world-wide by corruption and a lowering of standards that have affected politics to an alarming degree.
The signs are ominous not only in France but globally. Unless we do something about it the future is glum to say the least.