Why French Millennials Are Up All Night

Megan Anderson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and online editor for Going Down Swinging.

Approx 3 minute reading time

As you plan your Friday evening, pay a thought to the young people in France who have been up all night for the past two weeks. Protesting.

Already spreading to Belgium, Germany and Spain, the youth-led Nuit Debout (‘Up All Night’) movement is making headlines abroad, freaking out the French government and barely making a ripple in the media here.

Despite police attempts to dismantle the movement, thousands of young people have been camping out in Paris’s iconic protest square, Place de la République, since March 31 (they also refuse to let the month die – referring to each new day of protest as ‘March 32, March 33’, and so on.)  Beginning as demonstrations against French labour reforms – which made it easier for businesses to hire and fire workers – the rallies grew into a much bigger expression of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and social inequality, in a country where youth unemployment is at an 18-year high of 24 per cent. (For comparison, youth unemployment in Australia is currently at 12.2 per cent.)

Also adding to the dissatisfaction of France’s young people is their disappointment in a left-wing socialist government that has adopted what Newsweek describes as “a broadly centrist programme”. Extended emergency laws after the 2015 Paris attacks, that allow for warrantless police raids and unauthorised house arrests, haven’t helped either.

According to spectators, the overnight sit-ins and democratic debates are highly organised, and come with the kind of sophisticated mini-society – including general assemblies, committees, libraries, free kitchens (stocked by local shops and bakeries at the end of the day) and musicians – that some will remember fondly from the 2011-2012 Occupy movements.

One Nuit Debout protestor, Remy Buisine, has gathered almost 24,000 followers of his live-streams of the protests and, more recently, the evacuations by the police.

Journalist Sam Davies, a Victorian expat currently based near the Place de la République in Paris, says there’s “quite a festive mood” to the protests.

“Every day you come out of the Metro and they’re grilling sausages and kebabs. There’s music, there’s people giving speeches. There’s quite a big passive crowd.”

He says while the movement seems to “lack the violent edge” of other protests in France, “there is the occasional broken shop window”.

“There does seem to be a lot of pent-up frustration in people that is causing them to get out of the street.”

Davies says high youth unemployment, disillusionment with current socialist president François Hollande and the leaked Panama Papers are just exacerbating these frustrations, although he is sceptical that the movement, with its lack of specific demands, will continue for much longer.

“There’s a lot of people who have lost hope and are just angry.”

The University of Bath’s Benjamin Bowman suggested on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story program that the movement stems from a wider mistrust from young people against the “depoliticisation of politics”, where governments defer the responsibility of their decisions to markets, private companies and lesser government organisations.

“[I]f you’re saying there’s no politics – only the market – then what’s the point in voting? What’s the point in being involved in party politics?”

Some media has compared the movement to the “internet age” version of France’s student and workers’ revolution from May 1968, while others are comparing Nuit Debout to Spain’s 2011 Indignados movement against inequality and corruption, which actually led to the formation of the far-left Podemos political party in 2014.

Despite being dismissed by mainstream media, a recent survey estimated that seven out of ten French youth believed the protests represent their wishes. And while the movement has been criticised for being made up of mostly middle-class urban kids, the survey also found that – thanks to the digital age – 92 per cent of rural young people were familiar with Nuit Debout.

And the movement has already made gains: in reaction to some of their concerns, the French prime minister Manuel Valls announced €500m in initiatives to help young job-seekers get work after meeting with eight youth organisations.

One Belgian protester told the Guardian UK after attending a protest: “Never before had I felt so involved in democracy. I know a different paradigm is possible and I know if it can work out its problems […] Nuit Debout has a good shot at taking the system down and fixing it.”

Take some action

Follow Nuit Debout (with a French dictionary on hand) via Twitter here:

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