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Still credible? Critics round on 'Up All Night' movement after violence

Eric Feferberg / AFP | Members of “Nuit Debout” (Up All Night) at the Place de la République] in Paris on April 12, 2016.

France’s “Up All Night” protest movement has faced a turbulent few days with violence, clashes with police and the forcible ejection of a prominent academic. Some politicians and commentators are now calling its credibility into question.

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It started out as a simple demonstration against labour law reforms, but the movement that has become known as “Nuit Debout” or “Up All Night” has since morphed into something much bigger. Each evening since March 31, activists, mostly young and left-wing, have gathered at Paris’s Place de la République to debate and protest against a vast array of grievances, from migrants’ rights to social inequality and globalisation.

The movement has attracted thousands of supporters, drawn comparisons to the Occupy movement in the US and sparked talk of a genuine social revolution in France.

But a series of unsavoury incidents have cast a shadow over the movement in recent days.

There have been clashes with police, the vandalising of shops and vehicles set on fire. Dozens of demonstrators have been arrested.

On Saturday evening, the movement drew more negative attention after it emerged that a leading French academic, writer and philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, was forcibly ejected from the Place de la République after he showed up to listen to the night’s debates.

Finkielkraut, known as a strong supporter of Israel and an opponent of multiculturalism, was forced to leave the square under a hail of abuse from activists and chants of “fascist”.

'Useless talk’

Such incidents have served to undermine the spirit of openness and unity that until now had been defining features of a movement that aims to expand the concept of democracy. According to the movement’s own rules, anyone can demand the right to speak at the Place de la République – a show of hands then decides whether they can take the microphone.

Whether the activists truly embrace the values they claim to support is now being called into question.

“If someone wanted to discredit this positive but fragile movement, there would be no better way to do it,” managing editor of the left-wing newspaper Libération wrote in an editorial Sunday following the Finkielkraut incident.

The French political class, a principal target of the protesters’ ire, has unsurprisingly been quick to stick the knife in.

“I want to tell all these young people: you want to be engaged? You’re right! But rather than all this useless talk, come and engage in politics. It can be on the left or the right, but come and participate in political debate,” said Bruno Le Maire, a prominent member of the centre-right Les Républicains (formerly UMP) party.

“The right to protest is not a right to vandalise,” said Socialist labour minister Myriam El Khomri, whose reform bill triggered the initial protests.

The movement’s supporters were also called upon to “consider their futures” by the president of the Radical Party of the Left, Jean-Michel Baylet.

"The youth becoming politicised is a good thing, but we cannot tolerate this kind of misbehaviour and they must consider the future of this movement," he said. “I think this kind of movement, by its nature, must come to a conclusion. I think it's got to stop."

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Socialist education minister, said that “lines had been crossed”.

“The movement should ask itself where it goes from here. At the beginning there was something more interesting, more exciting about this movement,” she added.

‘Nothing has changed’ at Place de la République

The criticism has failed to quell enthusiasm among the movement’s members, however, says Rémy Buisine, a citizen journalist whose regular live Internet broadcasts from the Place de la République since ”Up All Night’s” inception have attracted tens of thousands of viewers.

“There has been no notable change at the Place de la République. There are still just as many people,” he told FRANCE 24. He estimates that between 1,000 and 1,500 people turn out each evening for the movement’s general meetings, a “constant figure”.

A number of “Up All Night” supporters have spoken out against the violence of recent days and the treatment of Finkielkraut. But since the movement shuns centralised power – it has no official leader, nor spokesperson – there has been no official condemnation.

Buisine also evokes the role of “personal initiative” when explaining the Finkielkraut incident.

“It’s not something we can attribute to ‘Up All Night’ as a whole,” he says. “What’s more, Alain Finkielkraut wasn’t thrown out of the [Place de la République] quite as quickly as what has been made out," he added.

But even if all is well with the movement, there are signs that the criticisms have not fallen on deaf ears. A social media campaign using the hashtag #DemainDebout has been launched to gather ideas for its future, while its organisers are also planning to release a manifesto – setting out clearly and concretely its beliefs and aims.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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