France’s ‘occupy’ protests a warning for Hollande’s Socialists

Thomas Samson / AFP | Protesters hold a meeting on the Place de la Republique in Paris on April 7, 2016.

An Occupy-style protest in Paris is gathering steam and spreading to cities across France, a sign of simmering anger as the country's Socialist government struggles to push through contested labor reforms.


The few thousand students, activists and agitators who gather every night at Place de la Republique for "Nuit Debout" - perhaps best translated as "Night Rising" - might otherwise have been the government's left-wing base. But the clumsy attempt to jump-start France's persistently low employment by loosening some social protections has fed a sense of alienation that many on the sprawling square are trying to turn into an all-out revolt.

"There's a feeling of deep betrayal," said Mariam Aueto, a 27-year-old with black glasses and a black headscarf. "This government is doing the opposite of what we elected it to do."

Why French students protest like no one else

The protest is so far just a week old but has the trappings of long-haul sit-in, with couches, tents, tarpaulins, a canteen, an infirmary and even a bookstall carrying titles such as: "Unemployed and loving it: A manifesto." Speakers address each other as "comrade" and take turns at the microphone to denounce "industrial capitalism" and "bourgeois democracy." Copycat demonstrations have popped up in several other French cities, including Lyon, Nantes and Toulouse - and even Brussels.

Nuit Debout began last week, when a small core of protesters denouncing the labor reform decided to camp overnight in Place de la Republique in eastern Paris, which became a symbolic gathering place after last year's deadly attacks.

Seven, an oil painter and refugee activist who goes by his pen name, said a half-hearted police attempt to clear the camp foundered when television journalists arrived on the scene. Slouching in a scavenged office chair, the dreadlock-sporting artist said the protest had grown every night.

"Soon it will be totally full," he hopes.

The French government has been treading carefully. The police presence Wednesday night was nearly invisible and politicians from across the left - from radical firebrands such as Jean-Luc Melenchon to politician Julien Dray, an ally of French president Francois Hollande - have come to the protests to pay their respects. Even Myriam El Khomri, the minister championing labor reform in parliament, said she was sensitive to the protesters' demands.

"Our country has been living through 30 years of mass unemployment," she said earlier this week. "So we have to have to listen to this kind of exasperation."

Meanwhile the movement has worked to keep up its momentum, drawing everyone from disgruntled farmers to militant tire workers.

Mickael Wamen, an outspoken ex-Goodyear employee who became notorious for being part of a group that held their boss hostage in 2014, was one of several who evoked the tax havens exposed in the recently published Panama Papers.

"People pretend to be surprised," he said at Republique. "We've all known for years!"

Blaming France's 'bloated' labour code

Many expressed a disgust with party politics that bodes poorly for the left ahead of next year's presidential elections.

Clement Baudet, a 27-year-old radio journalist, said he backed France's socialists in 2012 but was so unhappy with their government he wouldn't vote again - for anyone.

Baudet had initially intended to cover the protest as a reporter. Instead, he joined in the movement, working with colleagues to set up "Radio Debout," an improvised internet radio station broadcasting from a laptop perched on a wooden pallet under a tarp.

"I don't know where it's going to lead," Baudet said of the protests. "But I'm glad to be a part of it."

The gathering had elements of farce. One speaker was interrupted by a man who grabbed the microphone and staggered around slurring threats at the audience.

Some visitors were left cold by the spectacle.

Wais Furre, a 21-year-old politics student whose sharp suit, smart shoes and an Italian felt hat set him apart from the activists in red scarves and Lenin caps, said he thought the protesters were "fighting just for the sake of fighting."

"France is a tough country to reform," he said. "Everyone wants change, but no one wants to change."


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