PARIS—The tensions were high Tuesday afternoon at Place de la République, a huge square in central Paris.
Riot police, dressed in black uniforms with their visors down, lined up to face young protesters, who streamed up from the subway station holding furled up signs and flags. The blast of stun grenades thrown by the police echoed loudly over the square, and people yelled as they clashed with officers.
Pierre Lalu, a charismatic 33-year-old with a curly beard and bright blue eyes, jumped onto a bench to get a better view of the action. “We don’t want to rumble,” he told me. “But we will if we have to.”
Lalu and the young protesters clashing with police are members of the loosely knit protest group Nuit Debout, or “Standing Up at Night.” Since March 31, the protesters have intermittently occupied the Place de la République, one of Paris’ most important public squares. At its height, thousands people flocked to the Place every night. Similar groups have also organized in other cities around the country.
The group resembles a French counterpart of Occupy Wall Street—leftist, passionate, and mostly young, but not the most organized or directed toward clear goals. Protesters claim to be representing horizontal democracy, without leaders or spokespeople. (The group also follows in the footsteps of the Indignados movement in Spain, whose members occupied a central plaza in Madrid to protest austerity policies.)
“Taking the Place is a way of breaking the social wall between people,” said Lalu, sucking on a vape pen. “We want to gather the people together and see what rises up.”
The Nuit Debout protests began in response to la loi travail—the Labor Law—which was passed this month by the French government. It loosened the country’s strict rules about when and how employees of private companies could be fired, in an attempt to shake up the economy and create more jobs. France has a record-high unemployment rate, exceeding 10%; the youth unemployment rate is almost 25%.
Activists on the left have been strongly opposed to the law, which they say is a betrayal of workers by the governing Socialist Party. Many of the young people that make up Nuit Debout speak out against the law even though it would theoretically make businesses more likely to hire them. “It’s one thing to have a job, but it’s more important to have job security,” said Matthis Diamamte, a student, as he walked away from a clash with police on Tuesday. “There are more and more millionaires in France, even while workers are getting poorer—this is bigger than just whether I get a job.”
Shannon Geara, 21, added, “The government doesn’t listen to the people. That’s why we’re out here, to make them listen to us.”
The group is tech centric, organizing online to hold meetings and write manifestos using only open source tools. They have a wide presence on social media and have near-constant livestreams of events at the Place; new info about police whereabouts are sent out on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Members are divided into numerous committees to debate everything from environmentalism to globalism.
One constant presence is Remy Buisine, 25, who broadcasts to his more than nine million followers on Periscope, a live streaming app. In April, one of his live videos of a Nuit Debout protest was watched by more than 81,000 concurrent viewers, which he says is a national record for France. (Twitter, the owner of Periscope, has declined to confirm the number.)
“This is the best way of broadcasting a protest because it’s instantaneous, it’s direct,” Buisine said, taking a break from filming the movements of the police. “People know that it’s not edited,” he said, so they trust what they see.
Lalu described the ultimate vision for the movement as creating a “research and development lab” for protesters around the world. They’ve hosted a hackathon that had led to ideas for apps that could help people organize and hold online political discussions in real-time. And they’ve connected with other left-wing protesters from other countries to coordinate tactics.
But the movement also includes “rumbling” with the police. While the protests at République on Tuesday afternoon—part of a larger demonstration coordinated by labor unions—stayed mostly peaceful, tensions were high. A huge deployment of police in riot gear appeared to outnumber the protesters themselves. Young people rushed at lines of police several times while shouting slogans and waving signs. “After the last Game of Thrones episode, we all got inspired,” Lalu observed with a laugh. (Throughout the day, 41 people were arrested, including from several larger marches by labor unions.)
When I visited a Nuit Debout event on a breezy evening a few days earlier, the Place was much calmer. About 350 people stood and sat on the ground in a tight circle, listening to passionate speeches delivered through a megaphone about the evils of capitalism. Instead of clapping, listeners raised their arms and wiggled their hands in appreciation—a socialist church social.
The group seemed to fit in with what surrounded them—a circle of young guys kicking a soccer ball into the air, skateboarders moseying around on a small halfpipe, and passersby going to and from the busy subway station below. A statue of Marianne, the personification of the French Republic, towers over the square, its stone base covered in socially conscious graffiti about wars in the Middle East and global warming.
Michel Lussault, a professor of geography at the University of Lyon who studies protest movements like Occupy, said what made Nuit Debout special was the members’ “use of the public space as a tool of protest.” He said protesters could have been more effective if they had lived in the plaza full time like Occupy protesters in New York City—instead of just coming for events and protests.
But he also credited them for choosing a public space with a real symbolic and emotional resonance for the city. Thousands of people gathered here after the November 13 terrorist attacks that killed 130 people, many at restaurants, bars, and theaters just a few blocks away. On one end of the plaza is a memorial to the victims, with a lion statue draped in a French flag.
And like Occupy, Nuit Debout seems to be mostly white. Houria Bouteldja, an activist who founded a far-left political party dedicated to representing issues faced by immigrants and minorities, said the group needed to focus more on issues of structural racism, police violence against minorities, and Islamophobia.
“It’s not radical enough,” she said of Nuit Debout. “They don’t talk about racism—structural racism—about police violence…we want to share the work, but they have to transform their own organizations, which are all white.”
Nuit Debout organizers say they’ve been working to start groups in the poorer banlieues, or suburbs, of Paris, and have been speaking about racism in police arrests, although Lalu acknowledged that they haven’t communicated those efforts as well.
In the last few weeks, the crowds coming to Nuit Debout have tapered off, and the organizers are considering postponing events for the summer. But they say it’s far from over.
“If they take the Place from us, we’ll take another one,” Lalu said. “We’ll be back.”