Whatever its political legacy, the movement against labour law reforms has already changed the terms of political contestation in France
Paris: Zélie is an angry young woman (all names have been changed). Born in Spain in a working class family, she grew up believing that France was “some kind of a utopia” – a country where workers could proudly say, “We are here!” (“Nous sommes là!”) A few months ago, however, the romance of this 17-year-old with her country of adoption went sour and she is now filled with rage.
In February 2016, Zélie was enjoying a holiday with her family in Spain when she started reading about the planned reform of French labor laws. “It was all over Facebook… There was a buzz so I started wondering, ‘What is going on with this new law?’ I started visiting websites to get a better idea and came to the conclusion that it was a truly outrageous project”.
For its opponents, this reform of French labour laws, known as the El Khomri law (a reference to the minister of labour, Myriam El Khomri), will end up reinforcing the employers’ room for manoeuvre to the detriment of trade unions and public authorities, which remain the main adjudicator of labour conflicts in France. The major bone of contention concerns the “inversion of the hierarchy of norms”: if the law comes into effect, company agreements will take precedence over national norms and branch agreements. As economists like Thomas Piketty have underlined, this could lead to forms of social dumping, with competing firms trying to gain advantage over others by reducing the cost of labour.
To put it simply, this reform of French labour laws is widely being perceived by its opponents as a step toward the liberalisation of the economy and greater job insecurity. And while these concerns are particularly pressing among some employees of the private sector, they are being shared by large segments of the public sector as well, who fear that this reform of labour laws could provoke a “chain reaction”.
The movement against the loi travail (labour law) has been federating these discontents while giving voice to a more abstract sense of dread. And as the movement followed its course, it started articulating new hopes and expectations, giving birth to one of the most fertile episodes of French oppositional politics in recent times.
The movement against the loi travail started picking up in late February 2016, with high-school and university students playing a leading role in this preliminary phase. This mobilisation can be partly explained by the fact that the French youth has been hard-hit by unemployment, with more than 25% of job-seekers under the age of 25 remaining unemployed (above the European average of 20%).
Throughout the months of March and April, high school students organised a series of blockades of their lycées (high schools) across the country. In Paris, tussles would erupt in the wee hours of the morning between building watchmen and students wanting to steal dustbins to block accesses to their schools. Soon enough, the police would get into play. And subsequent incidents of police brutality only radicalised the protesters (such as when a member of the riot police was caught on camera punching a student in front of Lycée Bergson in late March).
As it expanded, the movement started collecting other groups of protestors, who brought with them their own political agenda and repertoire of collective action. In Paris, this was particularly the case of the autonomes (autonomists – anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian activists maintaining a relation of defiance toward political parties and trade unions), with a long experience of horizontal organisation in squats and so-called “anti-authoritarian camps”. In other cities, such as Rennes and Nantes, there was a greater imprint of the zadistes over the protests, especially of those anti-capitalist activists involved in the formation of an Autonomous Zone to Defend (ZAD) in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes, where they have been opposing the construction of an international airport since 2009. These activists are advocating a new politics of dwelling (politique de l’habiter) by occupying certain contested sites on a permanent basis, living there and sharing the everyday life of local populations.
The “public squares movement” (especially that of the 15-M or Indignados in Spain) has also made its influence felt over sections of the French radical left, inspiring new efforts to “occupy” and “defend” certain protest sites.
In the evening of March 31, 2016, these various forces converged on the Place de la République, in Paris, whose symbolic status as a gathering place for the French nation (epitomised by the statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, in the centre of the square) had only been reinforced after France was hit by a series of terror attacks in 2015. It is on this square that the largest demonstration in recent French history was organised in January 2015, following the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, and it is here as well that crowds of mourners assembled spontaneously after the even more devastating November 13 attacks.
It was raining that night and Michel, one of the participants of this “occupation”, remembers it as an “utterly depressing moment”. “It was freezing, there was just a small truck and a small concert happened. Frédéric Lordon [an economist who co-inspired this initiative together with the journalist François Ruffin] was welcomed as if he was Jean-Paul Sartre reborn. People applauded each and every one of his words, it was really upsetting”. Moreover, for this activist who had sojourned at the ZAD of Notre Dame des Landes, “this public square is not a place you want to defend: it is a hostile, martial place”. Even his critical mind acknowledged, however, that something did happen on the square in the following weeks.
Throughout the month of April, the Place de la République remained the theatre of an open-air political experiment, which soon expanded – though on a smaller scale – to other cities like Toulouse and Lyon. Nuit debout (‘Up all night’), as the movement christened itself, was not a mere adjuvant to the movement against the loi travail. Initially led by Lordon and Ruffin, this initiative soon evaded their control to include various groups: ecologists, collectives of unemployed and precarious workers, libertarian publishers, feminists, LGBT activists, art students (who built a temporary ‘castle’ on the square), etc.
Despite their distinct agendas, all these groups relished the opportunity to experiment with a new way to do and talk politics. Nuit debout was a dialogical experience, where every participant could voice his anger, his anxieties or his dreams in front of others, whether at the ‘General Assembly’ or in more theme-specific ‘Commissions’. More generally, it was an attempt to disrupt traditional politics by doing “unexpected” things, as Michel explained. Pulling out paving stones to do a vegetable garden, preparing meals sold at free prices or building a ‘castle’ helped strengthen the bonds between participants while defying the predictions of the state, the political class and the media. This spirit of defiance was made explicit by graffiti emblazoned in large letters on the banks of the Seine river, which proclaimed “Plutôt la nuit debout que le jour à genoux” (“Better stay up all night than kneel during the day”).
The “occupation” of the square also provided this loose coalition of activists with a base-area from which to launch operations across Paris (from support actions to migrant camps to initiatives aiming at the liberation of detained comrades to attacks against banks), before retreating to this “nest”, as a participant described it.
And like the movement against the loi travail itself, this initiative soon had to face the wrath of the state. The increasingly unpopular government of François Hollande had tried to restore its credibility after the attacks of November 13 by proclaiming a state of emergency, which remains in force to this day. Hoping to counter rightist parties by competing with them on the terrain of security while demonstrating its resolve to reform the economy, it chose the path of confrontation with protesters.
Fearing that the loi travail could be rejected by its own socialist majority (which kept in mind that a majority of French voters remained against the law, as attested by many opinion polls), the prime minister, Manuel Valls, decided to bypass the lower chamber of parliament while engaging in a show of strength with protesters. On April 28, the participants of Nuit debout were prevented from building more permanent structures on the Place de la République and were chased away during a brutal police operation. They would later resume their meetings but were no longer allowed to organise gatherings until the crack of dawn.
The protests might then have died down if left wing trade unions had not decided to escalate the battle with the government – a decision that had much to do with internal power struggles within the unions, with a new leadership trying to assert itself by returning to a more confrontationist stand. This was the case, in particular, of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), whose leadership had realised that demonstrations alone would not be enough to pressurise the government, especially since the number of demonstrators remained relatively low compared to similar protests in the recent past. But the strikes and blockades (of oil refineries, roads, ports or garbage dumps) that multiplied across the country throughout the month of May also bore testimony to the resolve, and the simmering anger, of many sections of the workforce, from railway workers to dockers and garbage collectors.
As the protests entered a new phase with these disruptions of the economy, the government intensified its repression against all fronts of the movement. For Zélie and other lycéens actively involved, these demonstrations were often their first opportunity to experiment with politics on their own terms, outside of parental guidance. Soon enough, it also became their first experience of state violence, a process that radicalised them ideologically and often led them to sympathise further with the most militant components of the protests.
Some of Zélie’s friends were put off by showdowns between left-wing ultras and the riot police during every demonstration or at Nuit debout. One of them, Alice, explained that, during one of these demonstrations, she was caught between law and order forces and those pejoratively described by their critics as the casseurs (smashers). “There was a clash and I did not know who to fear the most. In this situation, there’s only one sensible thing to do: get away.” Zélie and many others (possibly hundreds of thousands of them during the latest demonstration against the loi travail in Paris on June 14, although these figures remain contested) would not quite agree, however.
For the die-hard opponents of the law, many of whom have been hardened by a three-month long struggle, backing out is not an option. The intensity and the nature of police violence against demonstrators explain this resolve. While no one has been killed (yet), hundreds have been injured by the use of flash-ball guns and sting grenades, and by the indiscriminate use of police truncheons. In Rennes, a student lost an eye after being struck by a flash-ball while in Paris a freelance journalist was sent into a coma after being hit by fragments of a grenade.
Instead of taming the most committed protesters, this escalation of police violence has led to a growing acceptance of counter-violence, also described as being “self-defence against police brutalities” among them. Far from being limited to a fringe of the protestors, this position is reflected in the swelling numbers of the participants to the cortège de tête (the head of the cortege), a loose coalition spearheading every demonstration, before the official cortege led by the trade unions, which has been responsible for most of the violence against the police and private property. This “thousand-headed hydra”, as some of its participants like to describe it, is being led by black-clad masked militants who rarely know each other behind a close circle of friends and who only regroup on these occasions to engage in violent confrontations with the police, launch attacks against symbols of capitalism (banks, insurance companies, real estate agencies, etc.) and paint incendiary statements on walls and shop windows before vanishing – a mode of action referred to as the “black block”.
For those engaging in these forms of direct action, violence is not an end in itself nor does violence exhaust itself in its symbolic component (targeting the symbols of a much-reviled capitalist economy). As a group of activists explained during a collective discussion, this “thousand-headed hydra” also serves a political purpose by exposing every participant to the galvanising and vital force of an anonymous collective. From this perspective, demonstrations are not important for what they achieve in tangible terms but for what happens there and then.
As those engaging in these ‘black block’ actions acknowledge, the men and women in black (while women are a minority, they also play an important part in these actions) would not go very far if they were not protected by other, less militant demonstrators. Key to their protection is the close presence of more mainstream protestors, who deliberately shelter them from police action. The fact that the cortège de tête now includes thousands of participants (including a few hundred black-clad militants, with occasional reinforcements from other European countries like on June 15) bears testimony to the growing acceptability of these forms of action and to the alienation of the French youth from traditional political organisations.
One should avoid drawing a clear boundary between the men and women in black and other components of the cortège de tête, which would be indexed on a clear dichotomy between pacifists and proponents of violence. Zélie, for instance, claims to be “pacific but not necessarily pacifist”. Like many other young actors in the movement, she refuses to dissociate herself from the militants confronting the police, breaking shop windows and occasionally setting cars on fire during demonstrations. For her, “One may disagree with their methods but I’m not against them breaking the windows of banks: everyone has his own style of symbolic action”.
As far as older participants to the movement are concerned, the cortège de tête and its most militant components tend to elicit more fixed feelings. While I talked to CGT members and sympathisers who expressed their disregard for these “little punks” allegedly bringing disrepute to the movement, I found that fear and awe sometimes coexisted in the perceptions of these militant elements. After a group of them smashed the windows of a car dealer near the Place de la Nation, on May 26, I saw the crowd cheer and applaud this ‘anti-capitalist’ action. A few minutes later, however, as the masked youths went on the rampage against street furniture, I witnessed an elderly participant voice his anger against them, accusing them of delegitimising the movement at a time when it was allegedly “expanding”. I then overheard a couple of demonstrators in their 60s, who feared that this outbreak would get the man hurt. In the end, however, the riotous youngsters just ignored the shouts and went on with their destructive spree.
The ever-increasing numbers of these youths determined to be ‘ungovernable’ constitutes a challenge for the police. All the more so since it is becoming increasingly difficult to repress in peace. While law and order forces can be seen filming the clashes to later identify the casseurs in case of mass arrests, they are in return being monitored by hundreds of cameras and smartphones. The movement against the loi travail is the second major French social movement of the Twitter era, after the mobilisation against pension reform 2010, and social networks have played a key role in coordinating and publicising actions. The movement against the law has also been a terrain of experimentation for new forms of reporting, with young freelance journalists broadcasting live with their smartphones, filming the protests without interruption while interacting with viewers posting comments online – formats encouraged by Twitter’s Periscope and Facebook’s Live video services.
Those involved in the current movement point at the complementarity of online and offline actions. I once saw a young female demonstrator carrying a sign that proclaimed, “Did you think we would remain confined to Twitter?” In the post-Snowden era, however, the younger and more tech-savvy participants no longer rely on phone or email applications like Messenger or WhatsApp, which they believe to be monitored by the state (when I replied that these apps were now encrypted, Zélie said it was owned by Facebook and couldn’t be trusted). They prefer to use less prominent but better encrypted communication tools, which they have become familiar with in the course of the movement. This is all the more important since illicit actions – unauthorised demonstrations or high school blockades, for instance – have become an essential component of the repertoire of action of these activists.
Another novelty brought about by state repression has been the routinisation of protection kits, including ski masks (or at the very least swim goggles, though they have proven to be less effective against tear gas), physiological serum, Maddox (a powerful anti-inflammatory drug), scarves, surgical or – even better – gas masks. Members of the the ‘block’ (the group of black-clad masked protesters), for their part, have also improved their equipment along the course of the movement, in particular by learning to use loose tracksuits and windproof jackets that hide their shapes and make them less recognisable by the police.
Less visible but equally important has been the familiarisation of the more youthful components of the movement – and the one most exposed to police harassment – with legal proceedings. Even teenagers now go to demonstrations with the contact details of a lawyer or two in their pockets, and know just what to divulge to the police if detained, by sharing minimal information (their names and that of their parents, mainly) and by refusing immediate hearings. Last but not least, the intensity of police violence has led to the multiplication of ‘street medics’, who are activists with a basic training in first aid and who provide support to the injured while imparting a political message. As Adele, a young social worker who went through some ‘medic’ training sessions, explained, these teams “deconstruct the idea that you need to have completed studies, to have a certain social status or to have a honorific title to provide care to the people”.
Whatever its political legacy, the movement against the loi travail has already changed the way of contesting in France, in the most practical and tangible senses of the term. The imprint of this movement is bound to be particularly strong over its younger participants. On the one hand, Nuit debout has strengthened their conviction that contemporary political struggles need places to sustain themselves. Meanwhile, the high-handedness of the police – to which students and young workers have been the most exposed – has led to the development of a “collective intelligence’ among young protesters as a reaction, to use the words of a sociology student familiar with the ZAD movement and the current protests.
The intensity of the repression has also turned the participation of young protesters into a sensorial experience. The disappearing of the city under a thick veil of white smoke at every demonstration, the acrid smell of tear gas on clothes and skins, the acute sufferings caused by the gas, the nausea, the suffocation, the deafening explosions of sonic bombs or the battle cry of the cortège de tête (Ahou, ahou, ahou!, inspired by the Spartan warriors of the comic book and movie 300) – all these sights, smells and sounds are stuff their bodies will remember for a long time.
Laurent Gayer is a research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI), Sciences Po, Paris.